Making miracles: Vail Veterans Program is ‘what was missing after Vietnam’ | VailDaily.com

Making miracles: Vail Veterans Program is ‘what was missing after Vietnam’

VAIL — Dr. Sean McDougal's entire life did not flash before his eyes as he stood at the top of Golden Peak, but the last year did.

McDougal was a paraplegic last July. He has followed his own best advice, "Physician, heal thyself," and was improving but was still in a wheelchair in early November.

Yet here he is two months later, one of 85 guests of the Vail Veterans Program's January group, standing at the top of Golden Peak … standing … on skis … in Vail.

McDougal believes in miracles, because he is one. On Monday, Jan. 22, he grinned like the medical miracle he is, pushed off and followed the laws of gravity with missionary zeal.

Onlookers at the bottom cheered. His wife cried. Truth be told, if there were dry eyes on Golden Peak, then they were lying eyes.

Heroes walk among us

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Stroll quietly into any small group in town this week for the Vail Veterans Program, and hero stories pour out.

There's the man who lost much of his eyesight when he was training Romanian soldiers. He's here with his family. He's learning to live. He's also working to restore his eyesight.

Sgt. Frank Laguna and his wife, Candace, are surrounded by initials and acronyms all day, every day. Frank broke his back and badly injured his legs. He wears IDEO dynamic braces on his legs, a new technology that helps people from having limbs amputated. Prosthetist Ryan Blanck designed the Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis at the Center for the Intrepid, Brooke Army Medical Center in 2009.

This week, Frank Laguna is riding ski bikes with his 11-year-old son, Antonio Laguna, partially because it's easier on their bodies than ski boots, but mostly because it's fun. Antonio is one of only 100 people since 1968 diagnosed with ROHHAD Syndrome — rapid-onset obesity with hypothalamic dysfunction, hypoventilation and autonomic dysregulation. ROHHAD impacts the body's ability to remind the body to breathe.

"They went all-out for the vets. It's a great program," Frank Laguna said of the Vail Veterans Program.

Congressional budget problems

Dr. Brandon Goff has seen all that and more. Goff has been with the Center for the Intrepid, Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.

This was Goff's first time to Vail, true of most of this group. Of the 85-plus veterans and their families, only two have been to Vail before. Dave Rozelle, one of the Vail Veterans Program founders, is a Goff patient at the Center for the Intrepid.

Congressional budget problems almost canceled this trip. Timing is everything, or nothing, and this week's brief federal government shutdown hit just as all of these vets and their families were about to head to Vail. Funding as in peril for everything that was not "essential." Lots of people spent lots of time filling out federal forms and convincing federal bureaucrats that traveling to Vail for the Vail Veterans Program is essential.

"It's not a boondoggle. It's an integral part of recovery and therapy. It's not a Pet-A-Vet program," Goff said, describing programs that tend to raise money, but not much of it makes its way to the vets, the people who need the help."

This is what was missing

Goff looked around the Larkspur dining room Tuesday morning, Jan. 23, at his patients — 33 on this trip — and smiled.

"This is what was missing after Vietnam," Goff said. "These people return and they're cared for and appreciated."

Trips such as this are vital for myriad reasons, Goff said.

"For many in this group, this is their first time out in the community, their first chance to look and feel normal in the context of their families," Goff said. "Every one of them is on fire."

The hospitals are great, and miracles happen there, but everyone's lives are disrupted. They live in apartments by the hospital for months or years because miracles happen — but not right away.

"Kids are smiling because they're watching their parents smiling. Smiles are everywhere," Goff said. "This is the first time that joy has gone both ways."

"Getting on the slopes is necessary," Goff said. "Part of behavioral health is not having to worry about everything, about the ability to be a normal family on a ski vacation. The joy on their faces — they're with their kids."

No one is hopeless

Goff cares for these vets from the time they leave the ICU to the time they walk out his door. He's as tough as he needs to be, but he still cries when he works with his patients.

Sometimes families cry when someone deploys to the Middle East, fearing that their loved one will return home maimed. Sometimes those fears come to pass.

He said when he first started two decades ago, he was an emotional wreck most of the time. Now he knows that no one is hopeless, no matter how badly they're injured.

He says when he looks at someone badly injured from Iraq and Afghanistan, he now realizes that there is always hope. He has seen it with his own eyes, helped make it happen with his own heart and hands.

"I say to them, 'You're really down right now, but we know what you can be,'" Goff said.

Started with shingles

McDougal was serving in South Korea when he caught shingles, which infected his spine and gave him ascending paralysis. It started with his feet and worked its way to his chest.

He was diagnosed with shingles on May 2, 2017, when he woke up with a tingle in his left hand. The tingling spread to his left side, followed by paralysis, and he thought maybe he was having a stroke. A doctor in Seoul put him and his wife on a plane, and five hours later, they were on their way to Tacoma, Washington.

By July, he was a paraplegic. He was still in a wheelchair in early November.

McDougal is an endodontist, a dentist who specializes in maintaining teeth through procedures that involve the soft inner tissue of the teeth, called the pulp. When Goff had to tell him he might not get well, that he might be this way forever, they both knew what that meant.

McDougal is one of 57 endodontists in the Army, and he's working hard to get back to it.

"I'm working at it every day. I love what I do," McDougal said.

On Monday, McDougal was skiing with his daughters.

Healing happens. So do miracles, but only if you work at them.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

To help

The Vail Veterans Program is supported by donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers. That allows all programs to be free for veterans and their families. For more information about Vail Veterans Program, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit vailveteransprogram.org or call 970-476-4906.