THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Adrian Walker

Widow fights on against VA

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 3, 2011

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CHELMSFORD - Agnes Chandonnet is a person who keeps meticulous files - letters, reports, even an autopsy report. An unimaginably painful autopsy report.

This attention to detail has been critical in her 12-year battle against an insensitive federal bureaucracy.

Since 1999, Chandonnet has been pleading with Veterans Affairs to reconsider its version of how her husband died. Despite decades of treating Joseph Chandonnet for what no one disputes were military-related injuries, the government ruled that the dementia that took his life in 1993 was completely unrelated. There is considerable evidence to the contrary, but for years no one has been willing to look at it.

“They know I’m 90 years old,’’ Chandonnet said with a wry smile. “They’re just waiting for me to go away.’’

Joseph Chandonnet joined the old Army Air Corps in 1942. By the time Captain Chandonnet was discharged in 1946, he had osteoarthritis, among other maladies.

He had left a funeral home business to enlist in the war of the century. But by the time he returned, the business had withered away. He looked for a while for another funeral home to buy, but ended up selling health insurance. His own health care was taken care of, for decades, at the VA Hospital in Lowell.

Over time, Chandonnet’s symptoms got more serious. He was prescribed Indocin for his arthritis. Indocin is considered an effective drug against arthritis and gout, but regular use can take a serious toll on internal organs. In 1988, he had 70 percent of his stomach removed.

After the surgery, records show, he went on Lanoxin, a heart medication. Rather than taking .125 mg, as prescribed, he was given a dose of 0.25. After he became lethargic and obviously ill, his wife insisted on having him tested at Massachusetts General Hospital. What doctors there found shocked her: He had a resting heart rate of 40 beats a minute, and was told he had been taking far too much medication for far too long.

They were from a generation that simply didn’t question men in white coats. “Joe would go in the office and the doctor would just take his blood pressure and renew his prescriptions,’’ Agnes Chandonnet said. “We were stupid enough at that time to just take a doctor’s word for it.’’

This time the Chandonnets took more aggressive action, but Joseph’s memory and mental faculties were beginning to fail. When he died in 1993, his death certificate listed the cause as Alzheimer’s disease.

His autopsy, however, reached a different conclusion. It says he died of Lewy Body Dementia, a different form of the disorder, albeit one with similar symptoms. The distinction is critical because if he died of LBD, as it is known, his death may have been caused by the treatments - or mistreatments - for his service-related injuries.

That was the conclusion of the last doctor who treated him, Dr. Charles Boucher of MGH, who has written to the VA on Agnes Chandonnet’s behalf. In 2001 and again in 2005, he wrote that Joseph Chandonnet’s excessively slow heart rate was likely caused by Lanoxin, and that this was “more likely than not’’ a contributing factor in the progress of his dementia.

The VA has not been so much insensitive as unresponsive. Regina Jackson, a Chelmsford veterans agent who has worked this case for more than a decade, complains that “You just can’t get anyone on the phone. And you never talk to the same person twice.’’

There is some light, perhaps: Agnes Chandonnet was informed in July that her case was being referred to an outside medical panel for review. That means that, perhaps for the first time, someone in Washington will actually carefully review the medical record. This, after a 12-year fight for a benefit that totals $1,154 a month.

Chandonnet says her case makes her wonder about the treatment being afforded today’s veterans. “I feel bad for all those young men coming home, if they’re putting them off like they have me.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com