Charles Nelson, a former Army Specialist, was training in South Korea when he fell suddenly and violently ill. He was diagnosed with kidney disease after battling an untreated case of strep throat. Charles and his wife, Tamara, immediately sought help from the Veteran Affairs Choice Program, which allows veterans who live more than 40-miles away from a VA hospital, to receive care at a participating facility of their choice.
Charles’ son Coty wanted to be his donor but when they discussed their plan with Charles’ VA Choice Program healthcare provider, they were denied coverage because Coty was not a veteran.
“…I just knew that it was wrong,” said Tamara. “No matter which way you looked at it, anybody could look at it. It was just wrong.”
The VA promised to support Charles by paying for his flight to one of two participating VA hospitals in both Portland, Oregon or Nashville, Tennessee, but Charles’ condition deemed it life-threatening to board a plane.
As Charles’ health declined, Tamara reached out to the media, Congress, the Senate, and the President to shed light on Charles’ story. As a nine-month battle with the VA raged on, the community pitched in and the Nelsons were able to pay off the deductibles.
“We had help from the hospital, Medicare, donations, somebody was a blind donor that paid the remaining balance,” Charles said. “I’m just glad that the laws changes and it’s signed into the law now that veterans will be able to use it. Hopefully that’s the way that it works.”
Along with the difficulties of being ill, Charles also feared reprisals from the Veterans Administration itself.
“He was sincerely afraid of backlash from the VA,” Tamara revealed. “Our soldiers are taught not to question things. They’re taught to follow orders… I was told after this that I didn’t have to fight anymore and, that’s right, I don’t have to, but there’s others that are still facing the same problems. Why should anyone else have this issue?... I’ll do anything I can to see this through and make something change.”
According to the Nelsons’ recent conversations with Jamie McBride, the Solid Organ Transplant Program Manager at Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio, and a VA whistleblower, there have been four different transplants approved in the past week when previously, they had been declined.
The Nelsons remain hopeful about the future and what it holds for disabled veterans in similar situations.
“Tamara’s voice and what we were going through is what kind of made this take off,” Charles said. “This grabbed some traction.”
So much traction that Congressman John Carter, who represents Texas' 31st Congressional District including Round Rock, Cedar Park and Leander, proposed “Veterans Transplant Coverage Act” in 2017. That bill is designed to prevent the VA from denying veterans coverage on the basis that their donor also be a veteran.
Carter said funding for these medical procedures will be made possible through the appropriations process, noting that the issue may only affect about seven percent of the population, but the previous rules make it almost impossible for those needing transplant to find a suitable veteran donor.
Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Director Christopher Sandles also attended the press conference, giving support for others to follow the Nelson’s suit and be vocal about other veterans facing similar issues.
"What we need are more folks, whether they be staff or veterans, that when something isn't right — even if they themselves aren't going to benefit from the change — that they see these things through to be certain that legislative changes process changes are put into place so that those that come after them don't deal with the same obstacles," said Sandles.
President Trump officially signed the Act into law on June 6.
“Ultimately, you’re only one voice, and you do everything you can to fight with that one voice,” Tamara vowed. “I’m glad that people listened to Rep. Carter’s voice on this one. I’m just happy and proud that veterans are getting the help and support that they need from the VA.”