Veteran needs kidney transplant, but can't get help paying for it

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — When Vietnam veteran Don Cowan had triple bypass surgery in 2009, he was placed on diuretics and pain killers that he said ultimately destroyed his kidneys.

Cowan, a 64-year-old small business owner, entered his name on an organ donor list and began dialysis three times a week, hoping he might find a donor before it was too late.

His prayers were answered more than a year ago when a friend of Cowan's wife, who was already an approved donor, offered to give her kidney to Cowan.

But getting help paying for the expensive transplant surgery — which costs an average of $250,000 — has been agonizing for Cowan. He said it is a harsh irony that he has secured a donor but can't afford to schedule the surgery.

"I'm really lucky to have a willing donor to help save my life, but no one is willing to do anything and I've done everything I can do," Cowan said while standing behind the counter of his auto accessories business on San Juan Boulevard on Thursday.

Cowan said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offered to schedule and cover the surgery if he went to Portland, Ore., to an approved transplant center there. But the surgery, which requires months of preparatory and follow-up care, amounted to a financial hardship that would likely cost him his business.

"I can't take off and move to Portland for two or more months," he said. "I've got a business here I've run for 30 years. What am I supposed to do?"

Appeals to the Farmington offices of the Social Security Administration and Medicare claim representatives to see if Medicare would cover the surgery have proven to be equally frustrating, he said.

"Each year, I'm required to go down to (the University of New Mexico) hospital in Albuquerque and get re-evaluated, new lab tests ... but they're waiting on Medicare to approve it," he said. "Every time I call, I get 'the manager is on vacation' or 'the person you need will be back in two weeks.' It's gone nowhere for over a year."

A call made to a claims representative at the Social Security office in Farmington about Cowan's case was referred to spokeswoman Rhonda Romero, who did not return calls made over two days.

Cowan's friend, Troy Cannon, who said he has known Cowan for 30 years, said he was shocked to bring his truck into Cowan's business recently and notice that his friend's appearance had changed.

"I was somewhat taken aback. He looked ashen, didn't look good and he told me about it," Cannon said. "It's doubly insulting. One, to have a donor. Then to be a Vietnam vet. It would be one thing if he didn't have a match. But he does. What the hell is going on in the world? I think it's a bunch of garbage."

Bill Armstrong, a public affairs specialist with the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System, which connects the state's veterans with the Department of Veterans Affairs, was reached on Friday and offered to try to contact officials who would help Cowan.

"We will get something working for the veteran and get him a great outcome," Armstrong told The Daily Times. "And we will contact him today."

By 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Cowan was getting ready to leave for his four-hour dialysis treatment that evening at DaVita Four Corners Dialysis Center. He said he received a call from a VA representative who said his case would be handled by an official in Dallas, but not until next week.

"They called and told me nobody could act on it today, but that it'd be somebody in Dallas," Cowan said. "Who knows?"

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.