Coping with the effects of Agent Orange

Winfield, KS

“Work-Arounds to Daily Struggles from Exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam”

Like many young men of my generation, I, Dennis Joy Smith, enlisted in the military service after high school graduation. After 18 months aboard an LST homeported in Guam, I found myself serving aboard river boats in South Vietnam in 1970. Apart from the mosquitos, the rats, dysentery and a bad bout with pneumonia, I thought himself lucky -- no bullet wounds, no missing parts. Yet the defoliate being sprayed along the river bank, known as Agent Orange, would find me later.
During my tour of duty “in country” I spent my R&R (Rest & Recuperation) in Taiwan. The first night there I met a young Chinese girl who was a student of Chinese literature. I was immediately smitten. At the end of a second R&R, also in Taiwan, I proposed marriage. She said “yes.” Upon my return to the U.S. I began the necessary paperwork to have her come to the U.S. on a fiancé visa. While waiting for a response, we began exchanging letters. Apparently there was a delay at the Chinese embassy in Taiwan. We ended up writing each other for several years, but travel and communication not being what they are today, the marriage did not take place. However, this experience fostered a life-long passion for all things Chinese, leading to two degrees in political science and international management. After a number of years working in marketing, sales and customer service, I finally seized the opportunity to live and work in China. I taught marketing and English at Changsha Railway University for two and a half years. Then, on the recommendation of a student from Beijing, I moved there as a senior marketing professor for INTI Management College, a joint venture between China and Malaysia. Later, I moved on to another joint venture called China-USA Business University and taught at several Chinese colleges as well. Before I knew it, I had been teaching in China nearly 16 years and had no plans to leave.
Then, exposure to Agent Orange so many years before came back to haunt me. My hands began shaking too much to write on the whiteboard or type PowerPoint presentations. My feet and legs hurt too much to stand for a 50-minute lecture. The last year I was there I lectured from a chair with my Chinese assistant translating and writing on the whiteboard. During my last year I was diagnosed with Diabetes Type II. As much as I enjoyed teaching Chinese and other foreign students, I came to realize this chapter in my life was rapidly coming to an end. So in 2010, I relocated to Winfield, Kan., to be near my only living sibling, an elderly sister.
Unfortunately, my struggles were only beginning. The VA doctor would only recommend a 20% disability. Social Security could only credit me with the time worked for American companies, not foreign JVs or Chinese schools. Therefore, I became a very-low-income earner with only my savings to help keep me afloat financially.
Things did not get better. My elder sister passed away and my physical condition continued to get worse. Finally, I collapsed in my living room suffering from - I found out later - an abscessed liver.
I spent 4 days in the ICU, 2 weeks in the hospital, and 2 weeks in rehab learning to walk again. This time my niece stepped up and helped me get through it, but it was hard on both of us.
During these last 2 years of gradual recuperation I’ve had a lot of worry and depression. For example, I couldn’t complete a computer application for Walmart greeter because my hands shook too much. That didn’t do much for my self-esteem. Nor could I fry an egg because when I tried to flip it I kept dropping it on the floor - there is no 20-second rule on a dropped fried egg.
Yet, once again, I have survived! And I am gradually getting a little better. Now I use the electric carts in Walmart and baste or boil my eggs.
I have found that when I have a problem I can usually find a so-called work-around to overcome it. I will list a few to illustrate, but first I would like to share 3 life lessons I’ve picked up along the way.
First: Do not be too proud or afraid to ask for help … your pride isn’t worth the suffering, and the worst others can do is just say “no.”
Second: If the path you are following isn’t leading you to your goal, seek another path … there is always another path.
Third: A favorite saying:
If your feet hurt; look at the man with no feet.
If your hands shake; look at the man with no hands.
My Motto: Got a problem? Work around it!
Sample work-arounds to daily obstacles and pricing issues: (A partial list)
1. Can’t shave with a blade…
Use an electric razor.
2. Can’t hold steady an open cup or glass…
Use a spill-proof cup or glass.
3. Can’t stand for long periods or walk well for shopping…
Use electric carts where available.
4. Can’t walk easily or safely…
Use walker or 4-point cane.
5. Can’t write easily or clearly…
Print and use labels or stamps when possible.
6. Can’t sign my name easily or clearly…
Had a signature stamp made. Also bought a month-day-year stamp.
7. Can’t pour from a full coffee pot…
Use instant coffee for each cup.
8. Can’t pour detergent from a full box or bottle…
Use detergent pods.
9. Can’t afford current price of haircuts…
Bought a set of clippers for less cost than 1 haircut.
10. Can’t afford the cost of movie theater tickets, cable T.V. or Internet…
Check out DVDs at the public library, use radio for news, use the computer at the library up to 1 hour per day.

Dennis J. Smith
American Legion Post 10

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