Sidelined by a mysterious event, she still gives it her all
In her twenties, April Nesmith was a pre-med biology, Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student who initially wanted to serve as a way to provide for her young son. However, the Army’s core values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage captivated April. Realizing this was what she needed to do with her life (to help continue with pre-med studies in hopes of attending and paying for medical school), April’s new mission was to be the best Soldier she could be.
Service cut short
In August 2000, April was stationed for active training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina with a rank of E-3. Unfortunately, her time in the service was cut short due to a severe injury following prolonged exposure in a gas chamber training exercise.
The effects were immediate. The day of the exercise, April was in peak athletic form. The following day she could no longer keep up during running or marching exercises. She was sluggish and felt pain throughout her body. She even passed out in a field during a training drill. Emergency crews and IV antibiotics were administered, but April passed out again only to wake up a few days later in a hospital room.
Pain throughout her entire body
She awoke in pain from her waist down, the myelin of her eyes filled with blood, vomiting uncontrollably. April has never been told what happened to her, and strangely, her medical records from that period have “vanished.” Her doctors only explained there was no possibility of getting better, and she would continue to worsen over time.
Leaving the hospital in a wheelchair, April was sent home on disability and received a 100% disability rating well within a year’s time. With no roadblocks to obtaining benefits, she felt she would be okay, as the Army was there to help her. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
Sixteen years have passed since the incident that forever changed her life. April now lives with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), sciatica, fibromyalgia, widespread nerve damage, spinal disc degenerative disease, memory loss, involuntary muscle movement, loss of vision, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and chronic pain throughout her knees, hips, ankles and back.
Obstacles to care
While the Army readily provided April with substantial pain medication, braces, canes, and other “Band-Aid” modalities early on, April soon faced challenges obtaining care. The Veterans Administration (VA) system is designed with a primary care doctor (PCP) overseeing every veteran’s treatment. The PCP will schedule appointments with appropriate specialists as well as approve treatment therapies. However, due to the enormity of wounded veterans, many are left waiting years for a PCP to be available. In April’s case, it took over a year before she was assigned a PCP.
Despite her entrance service documents stating she was “the healthiest person ever seen” and her exit document noting, “every system of her body is injured,” April has been forced to “prove” her pain and disability over and over again. It has been an emotional roller coaster for her.
“It is so hard for those of us dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress to hear doctors tell you nothing is wrong because they can’t see pain,” she says. “If you didn’t have a mental issue before visiting the VA, you sure will when you leave. The system is broken; no one is helping us.”
April attends weekly physical therapy, and sees her PCP every three to four weeks; she sees her psychologist every two months; a pain specialist every four months; and a dermatologist and ophthalmologist yearly. Trigger point injection, warm pool therapy, acupuncture, and tens units have helped manage aspects of her pain over the years. She has sympathetic nerve blocks every few weeks and takes upwards of 20 medications and supplements a day to treat chronic depression, blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, panic attacks, and involuntary muscle movements.
Feeling like a number
Appallingly, the VA took away her pain medications a year ago after a home aide wrote a fallacious report claiming she was drinking with her medication. Since April does not drink or smoke, she is fighting this accusation, livid that the VA would even take the aide’s report at face value without asking her first. “I feel once you are no longer a solider, you don’t seem to matter anymore to the military. As a civilian, I am a number in the system now; I have been discarded like trash.”
Being kept in the dark about what happened to her unit (many of whom have endured similar experiences) that day in the gas chamber has been difficult for April. She has sent multiple letters requesting a full base record, but all she has received back is 12 pages… none of which discuss the incident. This is why April stresses the importance of advocating for oneself and being well informed.
“Do not leave base without your full medical record,” she says. “If possible, have anything that may have been said to you in writing. Make multiple copies of these reports, and keep one on you at all times.”
April knows constantly being proactive is draining and impossible, which is why it is crucial to ask for help from your support system. “When life becomes too hard to bear, allow a fresh set of eyes and a new voice to advocate for you. Just never give up. Someone will be there who has your best interest at heart. Keep fighting for the answers you need, and do your own research; trust no one’s information but your own.”
A wish for more understanding
April wishes civilians could better understand those who served are not weak, but rather in desperate need of support: “After having every aspect of our lives regimented and planned, acclimating to the lack of structure and rules leaves us feeling alone, isolated, and unsure of ourselves. We need your love, encouragement, and help more than ever.”
Suicide rates are the highest the first two years following discharge. With no structure and minimal VA support, inactive soldiers find themselves lost among civilians. A better program needs to be put in place that works to de-regulate and re-adjust soldiers coming home, preventing further unnecessary and tragic deaths.
Additionally, April hopes the VA changes its current treatment protocol. “We all seem to be prescribed the same medications, prosthetics, and treatment plans regardless of our injuries or conditions. I am not a Stepford Patient, and I feel we deserve more individualized care.”
Giving it her all, no matter what
A cross-country runner, outdoors adventurer, swimmer, student and mother, April gives whatever she is doing her all. Competitive and fierce, pain took much of this spark from her—like her ability to work, become a doctor, or be the mother, friend, and partner she envisioned. It was working through the five stages of grief and writing poetry that helped her began to redefine her life and perception of herself.
For the past three years, adaptive sports have played a huge role in her ongoing quest to reclaim her passion and purpose. She has traveled all over to participate in rowing, bocce ball, table tennis, curling, and biking tournaments. It is her dream to make it to the Olympics.
“At times, finding this new me has been hard and painful. But there is a God who gives me faith and I move forward because of my son,” April explains. “He has been my biggest supporter throughout this journey.” In order to stay well, she focuses on adaptive sports.
April fuels her spirit through volunteering and giving back to groups like her VA Chapter and the U.S. Pain Foundation. “My hope is to one day to be healthy enough to run again, even if it is only for one block. In the meantime, I am staying true to myself and managing to survive day by day.”
April Nesmith is determined, focused, and strong. She continues to seek the truth, gain answers, and live a fulfilling life despite the pain and setbacks.