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Mother’s Quest for Answers in Son’s Death Continues

By Judi Finn

The weeks go by for Barbara Damon Day of Newcastle with emotional intensity, both highs and lows, as she continues to press for answers about her son’s non combat death in Afghanistan on June 15.

Patrick Damon was a captain in the Maine Army National Guard and would have had completed 20 years of service this fall. He left behind a wife and two children.

Day has composed a strip of four photos that shows Damon healthy and weighing in the 160s; a family picture taken with his children and wife holding onto him at his final deployment, Jan. 25; and a picture of him in Afghanistan in April/May weighing 185 pounds with a swollen face and neck. The final photo frame is black and below is his death date.

An allergic reaction to medications and vaccinations; a cursory pre-deployment health assessment that did not include an EKG (electrocardiogram) and slow medical response with inadequate equipment and drugs following his collapse probably all contributed to his death, believes Day.

“In my mind, it was not a sudden, unexpected death. The military could have and should have prevented it,” Day said. “There were signs all along the way.”

The autopsy report said Damon had scarring in his heart and that the lesions led to a fatal heart rhythm and death. The reason for the scarring is not known. Damon received a smallpox immunization four and a half months earlier but there was no smallpox virus in the cardiac tissue, meaning the vaccine was an unlikely contributor to Damon’s death.

Last month, Day met with army doctors and state officials, met with a doctor about anthrax vaccine, had a conference call with vaccine specialists at the military’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center and talked to U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. (Day is concerned that federal passage of a mandatory anthrax inoculation law for the military is imminent and no one is concerned. Refusal of the immunization would mean dishonorable discharge and loss of benefits.)

At the Augusta meeting on Nov. 15 with the doctors, congressional staff and state level staff, Day passed around the photo strip. “Everyone was shocked,” Day said, of the obvious physical changes in her son. As a result, recognition came that the autopsy doctor did not have a “before” picture and would not have noted the abnormal 20-plus pound weight gain. This may change, and Day reiterated other procedural changes she advocates so that other sick soldiers get the proper care.

For example, the requirement for military physicals to include an EKG as of the 40th birthday has a loophole that compliance may take up to five years. Day’s request is that “anyone deployed will get one – every soldier, a complete physical with an EKG.”

Her son at age 41 did not get a pre-deployment EKG so there is no way to compare it with the autopsy examination. According to a Oct. 30 letter written to U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe from U.S Army Col. Paul Cordts, director of health policy and services for the Dept. of Defense, written on behalf of the U.S. Surgeon General, “It is not clear exactly what could have been done differently to prevent the tragic death of Capt. Damon,” and that the pre-deployment screening appeared to be in order. “Pre-deployment evaluation does not require a current physical examination. For Capt. Damon, at age 41, this would have (had it been done) included an electrocardiogram (EKG) which might have detected the long QT syndrome, a condition which predisposes one to sudden cardiac death.”

The letter was the result of Day’s request for a Congressional Inquiry. Cordts noted in his letter a new protocol for an annual health assessment to identify soldiers with cardiac risk factors. “We are currently exploring better methods to screen for cardiovascular disease, in general, and particularly prior to deployment.”

Day was told by Damon’s widow Hilde Hiley that in November, 2005, Damon had to go to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain because he thought he was having a heart attack. Three days earlier Damon was given a flu shot.

To rule out a genetic heart anomaly, it was suggested family members get an EKG, and Day has already had hers. “First they have to rule everything else out,” said Day.

Col. Cordts does not dispute the delay in transport of Damon to the base emergency room, and said it should not have occurred.

The sequence of events leading up to his death, according to Cordts’ letter, included Damon’s visit three days before as an outpatient to the base clinic on June 12. He complained of a rash, believed to be a medication reaction to the antibiotic dioxycycline, used to prevent malaria, not the first time Damon had an allergic reaction to the drug. Consequently, Damon was switched to mefloquine.

Dioxycycline is used to treat anthrax exposure. Day asked Col. Cordts why dioxycycline was prescribed to prevent malaria and was told that’s all they had. Side effects include “a life threatening allergic reaction (symptoms are trouble breathing; closing of the throat; swelling of the lips, tongue or face; hives),” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website. Damon was prescribed 500 mg for 30 days, according to Day. In her final conversation with her son the night before he died, his breathing was labored.

Damon had allergies and a history of migraine headaches for which he took pain medication and sumatriptan. “Blood tests for mefloquine following his death were negative,” wrote Cordts, and there was no evidence of an anaphylactic reaction. “Blood tests at autopsy showed very low levels of butalbital, a barbiturate which he was prescribed, indicating he may have recently had a migraine headache.”

On June 15, Damon was found collapsed in the barracks by his roommate, Capt. King. The two had been on an early morning run and Damon was alone for 20-30 minutes until Capt. King returned from the shower. King called for help and began CPR. “Attempts to revive Capt. Damon were ultimately unsuccessful,” wrote Cordts.

The official response time given for the “crash rescue vehicle” is 11 minutes after the call for help. Day maintains response time was 35 minutes. The response crew’s automatic external defibrillator (AED) indicated that CPR should be continued, “indicating Pat was dead,” said Day. There were no cardiac drugs on the rescue vehicle and Day said the transport vehicle headed in the wrong direction. “Pat’s unit was supposed to have a defibrillator,” she said. They were deployed in January and the AED arrived in July.

Day has been poring over her son’s stack of military records and discovered something just prior to her Nov. 28 telephone conference with the vaccine specialists. “They look into deaths that are unexplained” to see if a vaccine may be involved. “First they have to rule everything else out,” starting with genetics. “We’ve been there – let’s blame the family,” said Day.

What she discovered was that Damon had six shots on July 12, 1999 and a photo taken two days later showed him with a swollen face. Day was told previously by the military that for about the past 10 years, immunizations have been staggered rather than given all at once. One doctor’s signature on the medical record belonged to one of the National Guard doctors she met with on Nov. 15 in Augusta.

When Day met with Rep. Allen she requested that he “join the search for why Pat died, and to close the gap so that a physical and an EKG are given to everyone in the army, on or before their 40th birthday, and especially if they are about to be deployed.” She said, “He agreed to do this verbally to the Maine Army National Guard, to make a pre-deployment and post-deployment physical, including serum collection, mandatory.”

Another priority for Day is that there be access to the Defense Medical Surveillance System Data Base to track possible immunization and drug reactions and long term effects. She would like independent research done on all “sudden unexpected deaths,” military and non-military. “We still don’t know why he died – no explanation.” She wants the Maine Center for Disease Control and the national agency linked with the military.

“I’m in for the long haul,” said Day. Even on days of heavy despair, she said something or someone always comes along to buoy her spirits and give her strength to continue her mission to find answers to her son’s death and to keep other ailing soldiers safe and alive.