FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – James Fitch of Fort Worth has spent the last five years connected to an oxygen tank. “I have to have oxygen 24 hours a day,” said Fitch.
It’s a sad irony, because after serving in the Air Force, he spent roughly the same amount of time grinding uranium for the Phillips Petroleum Mill in Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico. “You had a lot of dust from crushing it down. The dust gets airborne and you breathe it in,” explained Fitch.
It was the 1960s during the Cold War and the U.S. government had contracted with the Mill to extract uranium to build nuclear weapons. Back then, the men worked without covering their mouths and noses.
It would eventually catch up with Fitch in 2004 when he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis from exposure to uranium.
The 73-year-old veteran desperately needed to find a Pulmonoglogist. James says he checked with several V.A. hospitals, but none had the right specialist to take him on as a full-time patient. “I got to the point where I would just throw my hands up and say, what am I going to do?”
Fitch then turned to the U.S. Department of Labor and its “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program“, which was established for people who labored in American workplaces filled with dangerous radiation.
It turns out, the program has not been much help for the Fitch family. They can’t seem to find a Pulmonologist who will take the insurance.
“He was doing a service for his country and yet, they’re letting him down,” said James’ daughter, Amy Fitch. “They’re not making sure he’s getting the care that he needs.”
Dr. Roger Khetan is with the Dallas County Medical Society and says many doctors simply won’t take government insurance, because the added costs and red tape are not worth the hassle. “Sometimes it’s not worth it. It’s easier to just go ahead and say I’m closing my practice to it or limiting my practice,” explained Dr. Khetan.
Those limits, however, have left the Fitch family wondering if a simple tank of oxygen will be enough to keep an ailing loved one alive. “It’s frustrating to hear him kick on his oxygen tank at night,” Amy said as her eyes filled with tears.
Amy has been blogging about her father’s medical struggles. To read her blog or to contact the family, click here.