Family fights for veteran's medical care

Benefits: A decorated ex-Marine who suffered a stroke is set to be discharged from the VA system as his relatives struggle with the potential financial consequences.

October 10, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From Vietnam battlefields to his bed at Perry Point, Dennis Storm's life has been marked by heroic and harrowing tales.

In Vietnam, the Marine rescued men from a burning helicopter and enemy fire. He earned a half-dozen medals, including two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star during his two tours.

His civilian life was no quieter. In September last year, the contractor suffered a stroke in Jakarta, Indonesia, and endured a fungal infection, pneumonia and a 20-hour flight to New York. In an emotional homecoming, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. authorized a state helicopter to airlift Storm from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore.

Today, his battles aren't over. Storm, who is paralyzed on his left side, is scheduled to be moved to a nursing home Friday from the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he underwent rehabilitation and medical treatment over the past year.

But his benefits have run out. What is left will cover a month of nursing-home care, although Storm requires a lifetime of assistance.

His relatives can't afford the costs and say that isn't fair.

"He was a hero," said Denise Storm of Fallston, Dennis' youngest sister. "Is that any way to treat a hero?"

But then, to Denise Storm and her mother, Rosalind, 79, of Bel Air, he was always a hero.

Storm, who was 10 when Denise was born, doted on his pregnant mother, Rosalind Storm said. So she named her baby Denise Michele, after the big brother, Dennis Michael.

Handsome and affable, Storm doted on his sister, too, even taking her on his dates in college after she pouted because she wanted to have fun, too.

"I was spoiled rotten," Denise Storm said.

In 1969, Storm demonstrated his valor, which was captured in letters from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

That year, hanging from a helicopter ladder, he was dragged through treetops and enemy fire after he ensured that his troops were safely on board. He was awarded a Silver Star.

In August 1969, Storm witnessed a helicopter crash near his command post at Quang Nam province. He ran to the burning aircraft and pulled the passengers from it. After he learned that the crew chief was missing, he "disregarded the explosions from burning ammunition inside the aircraft, entered the flaming wreckage through the rear section, and located the crew chief pinned under several pieces of heavy debris," his commanding officer wrote.

Storm then noticed two large gasoline drums near the fire. He ordered personnel to secure the area, and he dragged the drums away. For this, Storm won the Navy and Marine Corps Battle Medal.

Storm left the Marines as a captain after 19 years of service, but he never stayed in one place for long. He became a water treatment and oil facility contractor and traveled to Southeast Asia and other places, often taking his mother with him.

As an adult, Storm continued to dote on his mother. He co-owns her Bel Air home and vowed to cover the mortgage payments.

But last year, working in Jakarta, he had a cerebral hemorrhage, or severe stroke.

The Jakarta hospital acknowledged that it could not provide adequate care for Storm. At 5 feet 11 inches and 275 pounds, Storm was too big for the beds. He contracted pneumonia and fungal infections.

Denise Storm, a human resources director at a credit union, cashed in her 401(k) retirement plan and chartered an International SOS airplane to fly him home. During the last leg of the trip last October, he began coughing up blood and made it as far as Brooklyn. She had planned to transport him home by ambulance, but doctors warned her that he wouldn't make it.

Ehrlich dispatched a Maryland State Police helicopter to fly Storm home.

"We couldn't believe it," she said. "We were wiped out financially."

In all, Denise Storm has spent more than $65,000 on her brother's care.

At Perry Point, Storm struggled with infections and fist-sized bed sores, his sister said. But from December to March, he underwent therapy until doctors decided he wasn't progressing enough to continue.

But Storm's mother wouldn't give up. Each day, she spent more than three hours coaching him and massaging his limbs. Slowly, she retrained her son to read, figure simple math and speak to her.

She recalled the day Storm took his first shower, seated and assisted in the stall. For the first time in months, he felt water trickle on his skin, over his hair.

"Tears streamed down his face," she said.

The family refused to believe that he was beyond rehabilitation, and they fought with doctors to have him re-evaluated, they said. They contend that the therapy Storm received was inadequate and that he should be given time in the hospital to try again.

According to Dr. Mark Heuser, a Perry Point physician who has treated Storm, the VA system is more flexible than other health care systems.

Medicare covers only 21 days of therapy, he said, but the VA will continue therapy as long as even a glimmer of hope exists. They will extend therapy as long as year if they have to, he said.

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