Special Report: Vet's life no longer on hold after life-saving surgery

In December 2018, KEZI 9 News talked to Brandon Donovan, who said he was wasting away due to a rare condition that made it extremely painful to eat, losing more than 50 pounds over the course of a decade.

Posted: Jul 11, 2019 7:12 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- There’s new hope for a Eugene veteran who’s been fighting Veterans Affairs for years to pay for a life-saving surgery.

In December 2018, KEZI 9 News talked to Brandon Donovan, who said he was wasting away due to a rare condition that made it extremely painful to eat, losing more than 50 pounds over the course of a decade.

Donovan has since had surgery to fix his rare cardiovascular disorder.

SPECIAL REPORT: Veteran battles VA for 9 years

Since having the surgery, Donovan said he’s gaining weight and gaining his life back. So far, he’s gained around 15 pounds, and his wedding ring once again fits. Donovan is happier and healthier than when he first sat down with KEZI.

“How the pain is, is like swallowing cement and it’s hardening in your stomach,” Donovan said.

He began suffering in 2009. He had a rare condition called MALS, or celiac artery compression syndrome.

Brandon and his wife, Jennifer, started digging through his VA medical notes and found the first suspicion of the rare condition in 2015, and four years later, MALS suspicion came up again.

In October 2018, a physician with Oregon Health & Science University recommended MALS treatment with a specialist in Connecticut, but the VA denied the treatment request. According to the couple, it wasn’t their first denial.

“Find out all these years later that he’s been suffering when it could’ve been looked into back then, like my mouth dropped when I saw that,” Jennifer Donovan said. “I was livid.”

Eventually the couple reached out to Senator Ron Wyden’s office for help.

“Our whole family was stressed out. This got bigger and louder than we anticipated,” Donovan said.

After KEZI also reached out to the Roseburg VA, Donovan’s surgery was approved, and he went under the knife in Connecticut on Feb. 27.

“The first thing I did after waking up in a foggy haze is press right up top (of my diaphragm),” Donovan said. “It’s like at the very tip of that incision. That’s where the nausea – I could press right there and be uncomfortable.”

But now, Donovan said there’s no pain.

“There’s a chance it worked,” he said.

He ate that same day without the crippling pain that had consumed him for a decade. Donovan thought he was ready to return to normal.

“Ten years of negative reinforcement, undoing that essentially,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but it is.”

It’s a big deal mentally and physically.

“I still don't get the signal that I'm hungry or remember to eat,” Donovan said.

So he sets a number of alarms on his phone every day reminding him to eat seven to 10 times a day, and slowly he’s making progress.

Along with everything else, Donovan said he’s stopped losing hair, stopped getting cracks in the side of his mouth, his eyes don’t gunk up and he has a little bit more energy.

He’s also smiling more.

“I'm not under as much stress, and there's no staring into the void of like, do I have to live with this forever?” Donovan said.

It’s a life no longer on hold. Donovan looks forward to when he’ll feel fully recovered, which he said takes about a year.

“Once we get healthy again, we’ll try for kid number two, but until that time, it’s one day at a time,” Donovan said.

Travel expenses for the surgery cost the couple thousands of dollars, Donovan said, and while the VA agreed to reimburse some of that money, that hasn’t happened yet. They were able to afford the trip with help from an online fundraiser.

KEZI 9 News has reached out to the VA for comment and they said they’re researching our questions, and KEZI has also reached out to Wyden’s office.

Wyden’s office worked with the VA to help Donovan get the surgery, and now they said they’re working to help Donovan get reimbursed for the travel expenses.

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