By Chuck Lauer
The healthcare experience can change a patient’s life, for better or for worse. Sometimes a patient comes along who changes those providing the care as well. One of those was Oscar Canon.
His story, rich in valor, patriotism, promise and pathos, is one I will take with me forever. That it ended in a hospital, with that most quotidian and yet tragic of causes – an infection – makes it all the more poignant. This special young Marine came to my attention some years back. He had been severely injured by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush in the battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
He pleaded with medical doctors to save his leg, and eventually underwent no fewer than 72 surgeries, the last taking place over the Christmas holidays. The limb reconstruction done for him was among some of the most extensive doctors anywhere had ever attempted.
About five years ago, Oscar went for rehab at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington – which is where I come in. I had received a phone call from an old friend, Ed Eckenhoff, the legendary founder and then-CEO of the hospital, who himself has limited use of his legs as a result of a college injury.
Ed asked me if I could come to Washington to visit with Oscar, who seemed to be on the mend. “You won’t believe the wonderful attitude this young man has in spite of all that has happened to him. He’s our superstar. He wants as much therapy as anyone can throw at him. He just really wants to get back to (Iraq),” Ed said.
Two days later, I walked into Oscar’s hospital room, and there was this very young man sitting there with a big smile on his face. We chatted about a lot of things, and as our conversation went on, he told me about his platoon and how much he loved and cared for his fellow Marines. “I want to get back as soon as I can to be with them. They are just kids, you know. Some of them are only 18 or 19.” (Oscar at this point was no more than 24 himself.)
He told me how difficult it was in Iraq and especially with the heavy fighting in Fallujah. “I've lost some of my guys and held them in my arms after they have been shot. They always ask for their mothers when they are dying. It is sad as all hell.”
I learned that Oscar was raised in Colombia, South America. When his family came to this country, he attended American schools and then later he would volunteer to serve in the Marines. Canon was referred to as “The Hero of Fallujah” because of his exploits in some of the most brutal fighting of the Iraq war. For that he received a Silver Star from President George W. Bush. During the medal ceremony, the President shed tears. As an immigrant, the U.S. had given his life meaning and substance. He loved the Marines, he loved his buddies and what shone through loud and clear is the fact he loved his country more than anything else in his life.
Before I left, I asked Oscar if there was any wish he had that I could help with, and he immediately said he wanted to send some care packages to his Marine battalion buddies back in Iraq. They had asked him for all kinds of things like toothbrushes and other personal items. “It sure would help their morale,” he said.
I promised him I would do everything I could to make it happen, but as I walked out of the hospital, I started to wonder about the logistics. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could ask John Bardis, the CEO of MedAssets, to help. Bardis had helped to found an organization called Hire Heroes USA, which tries to find jobs for military veterans after they return stateside.
I called John and told him about my meeting with Oscar Canon and his wish. I will always remember John’s response: “It’s done. Don’t you worry about it; I'll take care of it.” Later I found out that Bardis had kept his promise and forwarded care packages on a regular basis to Canon’s buddies in Iraq. How can I ever forget his kindness in fulfilling the wish of a severely wounded Marine?
I stayed in touch with Oscar over the past few years, but only occasionally. We talked about his future, which was clouded by more than an injured leg. His first marriage failed, his wife having left him for another man. And yet, with everything he was facing, this young man kept talking about returning to active duty “so I can get back to my friends.”
Amazingly, he did, returning to Iraq as a Special Forces instructor and later as a military policeman and one of the most severely wounded veterans to return to a war theater. Unfortunately, while performing his duties as a military policeman, he was shot twice by a sniper and reinjured his leg, and consequently, was returned to the States to recover from his wounds. Months later, he would get married again and have a son, Elijah, now 18 months old.
However, his second wife was struggling with drug addiction and wound up in rehab. Oscar sued for full custody of his son. He had the last of his surgeries at the turn of the year, and his family was jubilant at the prospect of his not having to undergo further treatment. Oscar was still a Marine, based at Camp Pendleton in California.
In mid-February, he drove himself to a military hospital for what was thought to be a routine check of a persistent rash. It turned out to be an infection that may have resulted from his last surgery. Julian Canon, his uncle, told National Public Radio that while at the hospital his nephew somehow wound up in a coma and then died. He was 29.
There was to be a memorial service for Canon in Oceanside, Calif., and family members say he'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Oscar Canon is truly an American story of survival, courage and loyalty. Here is an immigrant who came to this country and gave everything he could to it, ultimately including his life. Anyone who has ever met him is haunted by this ending. We grieve for him, for his son and for the rest of his family.
There are many Oscar Canons in our military who not only deserve our deepest respect but all the help we can offer them. They have shown us how much they care for us, and now it is our turn to pay them back, giving them all that we can reasonably give. There is no doubt in my mind that this is what Oscar would have wanted. As a great nation, we have no choice.