Injured Marine: ‘I feel left behind’
Bucks County Courier Times
In the medical books, RSD stands for reflex sympathetic dystrophy.
In Moke Kahalehoe’s book, it stands for H-E-L-L.
The Falls resident and U.S. Marine has been tortured by the painful and debilitating neurological disorder since soon after breaking his left ankle and tearing a deltoid ligament in late 2005 in a martial arts training exercise during basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
Now retired from the corps, Kahalehoe, 26, lives with his girlfriend, Amanda Santacroce, brother Kawika and other family members at the home of his aunt, Carol Lubinski, in the North Park section of Levittown in Falls.
Cared for by Santacroce, family and friends, Kahalehoe spends nearly every minute in bed or in a wheelchair. A vacuum machine that sucks out infection and injects oxygen is attached to his injured leg as he shuttles back and forth between hospitals and doctors offices. The cloud of pain is broken only slightly by daily doses of five different painkillers and muscle and nerve relaxers, including OxyContin and Valium.
“Normal things that people don’t even notice cause extreme pain for me,” Kahalehoe said from his bed at Lubinski’s house. “When I can stand, I’ll get a shower, but I have to go four or five days between them because the water droplets hitting my skin are excruciating. I was just outside for a little while in the wheelchair, but I wasn’t out long because the wind was unbearable. Blankets and clothing on my skin are excruciating.”
In addition to the physical torment, Kahalehoe has financial worries because of the astronomical and still climbing medical bills. Though 80 percent of the medical costs will be covered by the military insurance Tri-Care, the Veterans Administration has so far said no to covering the other 20 percent, said Santacroce, who plans to appeal.
Citing privacy laws, VA officials declined to comment on Kahalehoe’s case.
Though many of the bills haven’t come in yet, Santacroce estimates they will top $1 million, with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs potentially not covered by insurance.
Santacroce and others have organized a June 30 fundraising dinner for Kahalehoe at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Fairless Hills. The Commerce Bank in Fairless Hills has set up a fund for those who want to help with Kahalehoe’s expenses.
Trip to Germany
Among those expenses will be a trip to Germany for a special medical treatment that involves pumping high doses of Ketamine into Kahalehoe’s body. Santacroce, who hopes her boyfriend can make the journey by November, said neither the treatment nor travel expenses are covered by insurance.
Ketamine, an anesthetic often used on animals, is also a recreational drug known as “Special K” on the street. It’s also one of the “date rape drugs,” according to medical information.
“Moke’s chances for beating this are zero unless he gets some of these new treatments,” said Dr. Robert Schwartzman, chairman of the neurology department at the Drexel University College of Medicine. He has taken on Kahalehoe’s case.
“The cure rate for people getting the Ketamine treatment is about 40 percent,” Schwartzman said. “If we also follow that up with some other drug treatments, I think we can increase Moke’s chances for a cure to about 60 to 70 percent, but it’s by no means a slam dunk.”
Schwartzman said he wants to concentrate on getting Kahalehoe better, not on past mistakes that might have been made in his treatment.
“We have to keep working at it,” Schwartzman said. “There are new drugs coming down the line, and there are drugs he hasn’t had that are effective. Moke needs the treatment in Germany and new drugs after that, and it’s only fair he gets them. He deserves the best we can give him.”
Schwartzman said RSD is always triggered by some injury, often one — as in Kahalehoe’s case — that hasn’t healed properly. The condition is less rare than it used to be, with about 50,000 new cases in the United States every year, he said.
If Kahalehoe is able to make the trip to Germany, he’ll be injected with doses of Ketamine in amounts not allowed in the U.S. The injections will induce a five- to seven-day coma that hopefully will calm down Kahalehoe’s nervous system and allow it to “reboot,” Schwartzman said.
Santacroce estimates the cost of the treatment and trip at more than $100,000.
Before the injury, Kahalehoe, a 1999 Pennsbury High School graduate, was looking forward to making the Marines his career. He said his military specialty was going to be intelligence, and he likely would have served in Iraq working in that area and conducting interrogations of captured insurgents.
All that changed on Nov. 26, 2005, just 19 days after Kahalehoe enlisted in the Marines. While he was engaged in a martial arts exercise, another recruit kicked Kahalehoe’s leg and instead of hitting his calf or other soft tissue as recruits are instructed to do during training, he banged Kahalehoe’s ankle, causing a major fracture.
“It happened on a weekend and they didn’t have the medical staff on hand at that point,” Kahalehoe said. “By the time I saw a podiatrist on Monday, the foot and leg were so swollen they couldn’t put it in a cast. They just like put on a splint and an ace bandage for three months and I think that is what caused all this [RSD]. It all stemmed from having it immobilized for so long.”
The original injury still hasn’t healed properly and can’t be operated on because of the RSD, said Santacroce, a Long Island native who met Kahalehoe at Parris Island while they both were in the Marines. She said she was honorably discharged after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I’m having my own issues with that with the VA because they claim it was a pre-existing condition, but my main concern right now is Moke,” Santacroce said.
Citing privacy issues, Marine officials at Parris Island declined to comment on Kahalehoe’s injury. The Courier Times was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Marine officials familiar with martial arts training methods.
After undergoing various treatments while still in the Marines — none very successful — Kahalehoe retired in August. The time since then has been a painful whirlwind of emergency hospital visits, battles over insurance, worry about the future and the endless ramifications of dealing with RSD.
Troubles with VA
Santacroce said she can’t understand the reluctance of the military and VA to take care of one of its own.
“We’ve had to take him to hospitals for emergencies like respiratory distress and things like that, and the VA says we should have taken him to VA hospitals, but there wasn’t time,” she said. “They also say things like they weren’t properly notified of the hospital visits. They won’t even pay for a special hospital bed at home or a special chair so Moke can sit down while taking a shower.”
Santacroce said Kahalehoe recently started getting a VA disability payment of $590 a month. It will be re-evaluated in 18 months and isn’t nearly enough, considering Kahalehoe’s condition, she said.
Congressman Patrick Murphy, D-8, and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., are trying to help, Santacroce said.
“PFC Moke Kahalehoe was injured while serving our country and now he needs our help,” Murphy, a veteran, said in a statement. “It is important that we rally around our troops and hopefully this event [June 30 fundraiser] will go a long way toward Moke’s recovery.”
Specter’s press secretary, Kate Kelly, said it’s office policy not to comment on pending casework, but chief of staff Scott Hoeflich issued the following statement: “Mr. Kahalehoe’s issue was brought to the office’s attention in May. Senator Specter’s office is currently working with Mr. Kahalehoe and the Department of Veterans Affairs on the matter of his disability rating.”
Kahalehoe’s father, Melvin, a native of Hawaii, lives in the islands but has visited his son twice since he’s been hurt and is doing what he can, Santacroce said. Kahalehoe’s mother, Joanne — Carol Lubinski’s sister — died about 12 years ago and had been divorced from Melvin for years before that, Lubinski said.
While attending Pennsbury schools, Moke Kahalehoe and his brother lived with a grandmother in another North Park house. Kahalehoe excelled in math, played baritone in the marching band, played classical and jazz piano and was an avid bowler with a 223 average.
After attending Drexel and Millersville universities with an eye toward a possible engineering career, Kahalehoe said he chose to follow his father and mother into the military.
“I don’t have any bitterness toward the Marine Corps,” he said. “I will always respect them and what they do. I still wear Marine Corps sweatshirts, but they have this saying about leaving no one behind, and I feel left behind.
“They sent me home without any healing or any fixing, just left me to fend for myself for what happened in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I just feel like they didn’t do what they could have done for me.”
How to help
A dinner benefit to help pay medical and related expenses for Moke Kahalehoe will be held from 7 p.m. to midnight June 30 at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, 920 Trenton Road, Falls. Cost: $25 a person. For tickets or more information, call Kahalehoe’s girlfriend, Amanda Santacroce, or his aunt, Carol Lubinski, at 215-869-8097 or 215-547-3146. Tickets should be reserved by Monday, Santacroce said.
People can also help by contributing to a fund for Kahalehoe set up at Commerce Bank in Fairless Hills. To contribute, make checks payable to “Benefit for Moke Kahalehoe” and also indicate that on the envelope. Send donations to Commerce Bank, 624 S. Oxford Valley Road, Fairless Hills, PA 19030. Donations can also be made in person at the bank. The bank phone number is 215-946-2841.
Chris English can be reached at 215-949-4193 or cenglish@phillyBurbs.com.