Pueblo County, Colorado
Contributed by Jean, Gracie, Phyllis and Karen.
Colorado Springs Gazette 12-1-1999 - Scars of War - Reservist From Pueblo Can Laugh Again After Battling the Pain - When Patricia Biernacki-Purvis served in the Persian Gulf, she was 20, healthy, not married, no children - "and invincible to all things." That was back when she was a young woman who loved the outdoors, who hiked, played golf and swam all the time. That was before the joint pains. And the stomach spasms. Thyroid troubles. Rashes. Migraines. Those problems, she believes, are the result of her six months in the gulf in the first half of 1991; then a corpsman in the Navy Reserves, she served at a fleet hospital in Bahrain. It was service that was sometimes frightening, sometimes boring, but service she ultimately enjoyed. "I was home worried sick and she was having the time of her life," said her mother, Sindy Biernacki. When Biernacki-Purvis returned from the gulf, she was a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. That life soon took some unexpected turns. In the fall of '91, she met Corey, her husband-to-be and then a soldier at Fort Carson. They dated, fell in love, married. She took a job as a lab technician at Memorial Hospital. Her first child, Nicholas, was born seven years ago. But as life raced ahead, her health problems began to mount. She had thyroid problems almost immediately upon returning from the gulf, and other "small things that kept progressing": irritability, joint pain, rashes. "I just figured it was part of life," she said. With her first pregnancy came severe digestive problems and a growing irritability that she attributed to the pregnancy. "As time went on," though, "things were never really the same." In '95, she became pregnant again - and the problems escalated. She was suffering horrible joint pain, rashes, she felt sick all the time and was throwing up a charcoal-black bile. At 22 weeks into the pregnancy, she had emergency surgery to remove her gall bladder. Her second son, Henry, was born three weeks early. The baby was fine, but Biernacki-Purvis was still suffering a lot of pain, still throwing up, her body withering away. Doctors thought she had lupus, MS, cancer. "They tested me for everything. Nothing pointed to anything specific." And no one pointed to her duty in the gulf. But when one doctor said she would be lucky to live another six months, her family started looking for alternatives. Her mother learned about the work of Garth Nicolson, who at the time was researching gulf war illness while at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "It sounds like gulf war illness to me," Nicolson said after talking to Biernacki-Purvis' doctors. Nicolson believes one cause of gulf war illness is infection by a microorganism known as mycoplasma fermentans. At his suggestion, Biernacki-Purvis' doctors - who she says "were willing to try voodoo at this point" - put her on a common antibiotic, doxycycline. Within six weeks, Biernacki-Purvis, bedridden at the time, showed marked progress. Three years later, she remains on the doxycycline. She walks with the aid of a cane and has bad days and good - "a lot of good days," she said. But she still gets stomach pains that radiate upward, still gets rashes, still gets twitches in her right arm. At times, the vision in her left eye will zap away for an instant. She doesn't have a theory for the cause of her illness. It could be the shots: she was given the anthrax vaccine that some soldiers are now refusing to take, and she took the anti-nerve gas pill that since has been acknowledged as a possible cause of gulf war illness. It could be exposure to chemicals in the air. For all she knows, she said, it could have been the sand fleas. Through it all, she has relied on the military medical system and civilian doctors - mostly the civilian physicians. Since she had been a reservist, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Denver initially refused to see her. But that stance changed after she enlisted the support of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R. Colo. "Going through military doctors was a waste of time," her mother said. "All they wanted to do was write her off as psychosomatic." This summer, though, Biernacki-Purvis met with a VA doctor in Pueblo who, after seeing her for 10 minutes, flatly said she suffered from gulf war illness. "We almost fell over. She's the only one who has ever said that to my face." Despite her years of suffering and the battles with bureaucracy, "I don't have any animosity toward the military. It's admirable work." Her biggest concern "is that this will be passed on to my children." Still, she feels fortunate. Unlike some, she has insurance and enjoys support from her family, her church, her friends. Her husband works nights with the Pueblo Police Department, but her parents live just a few houses away and are on hand to help with the children. "She's sick and she's going to be sick for the rest of her life," her mother said, "but there are a lot of people ... who have a lot bigger burden to carry." It was her mother who helped keep Biernacki-Purvis going at one of her lowest points, a time when she wanted the suffering to end, when she wanted to die. "My mom, in her past life, I know she was a drill instructor," Purvis said with a laugh. "She basically told me I don't have a right to die." These days, Purvis said, "My philosophy is I try to maintain as normal a life as I possibly can." And there's laughter in her life, though at times from unlikely sources. "My boys get the biggest kick out of kicking the cane out from under me." And her oldest son does a "wonderful imitation" of Mom limping along. That may sound strange to outsiders, she said, and she's certainly not advocating making fun of the disabled. "But if you can't laugh at yourself, then you have a very hard row to hoe." Photo Caption: Patricia Biernacki-Purvis, center, is aided by Maj. Dick Walker and Nancy Aguilar of Veterans Affairs as Purvis prepares to lay a rose at the Veterans Memorial in Pueblo's Mineral Palace Park on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Purvis had an attack of abdominal pain the morning of the ceremony. Picture Caption: Patricia Biernacki-Purvis and her 3-year-old son Henry Purvis walk through the Pueblo Mall on Nov. 3. Picture Caption: Corey Purvis helps his wife, Patricia Biernacki-Purvis, into bed at their Pueblo home Nov. 11 after she had an attack of severe abdominal pain. Picture Caption: Patricia Biernacki-Purvis, left, gets ready to take a photo of her son Nicky Purvis blowing out the candles on his seventh birthday at their Pueblo home on Nov. 10. Patricia's mother, Sindy Biernacki, lights the candles.
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