Veteran services

Tampa Bay-area veteran withdraws from treatment, ready to die for exposing flaws in AV transplant process

TRINITY, Fla. (WFLA) — Paul Umbaugh was a member of the honor guard who served President Ronald Reagan and also provided a presence at the funeral service as countless veterans were laid to rest during his career.

After delays and other issues that put off a kidney transplant until early next year, the 61-year-old has made a drastic decision that he says will put him under a draped American flag.

In January, he found a donor from the same honor guard unit he served with, after posting his dilemma on Facebook.

“It was really amazing because it was like within 30 seconds,” Umbaugh said. “I thought something would happen right away since I have someone who wants to be a donor for me.”

But Umbaugh said it took the VA four months to finally contact the donor. His wife Amanda said that every time her husband tried to move the process forward, VA staff asked him the same questions.

“Someone who is so sick?” said Amanda. “Nobody knows what’s going on with him and he has to explain it every time. Over and over again.”

After the delays, Umbaugh got out of the VA through Community Care which would allow a civilian doctor to perform the transplant.

But while the VA agreed to cover his surgery, Umbaugh said the donor was asked to pay his own medical bills.

“You have someone who can save my life,” Umbaugh said. “But you’re telling me they should pay to do it.”

The breaking point came when Umbaugh learned the transplant was scheduled for next year.

“I have a donor. I have someone who can donate a kidney to me,” Umbaugh said. “Why should I wait until January to do this?”

Umbaugh said praying with his wife helped him make a life or death decision. He decided to stop dialysis and was given 10 days to live.

“I’m supposed to be dead by Thursday,” Umbaugh said.

Umbaugh hopes exposing what happened to him will spur the VA to streamline its transplant process to help other veterans get timely care.

“I’m sure it could save a lot of people’s lives if they knew what was really going on,” Umbaugh said. “I hope it will make a difference. Something has to change.

A study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology reported that “wait-listed VA-insured patients had a lower adjusted probability of transplantation than patients with private insurance.”

Criticism of the VA transplant program was refuted by William Gunnar in the American Journal of Transplantation.

“The VA Transplant Program is long-standing, well-resourced, and has a proven track record of providing timely, high-quality, and comprehensive transplant care and services to our nation’s veterans,” Gunnar wrote.

James Haley VAMC spokesperson Kim Antos said VA and private sector transplants are monitored by the same organization. Antos said she was looking into Umbaugh’s case.