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New York/New Jersey VA Health Care Network
One Veteran Helping Another Veteran in Need
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Two very different Veterans first met a year ago. One, Kevin R. Hackett, a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP, a prestigious Manhattan law firm, saw a need for medical care in the other man, Zack Lewis, Vietnam Veteran and long out-of-work TV cameraman. Hackett offered from his heart to accompany his fellow Veteran to VA to seek a doctor. This act of kindness will be the subject of a video presentation at the NY City Bar Justice Center's annual gala on April 5.
Taking the story back to 1967, Hackett received a low draft number and completed ROTC at Boston College. Upon graduation he was on orders to go to Vietnam, when instead the Army let him go to Harvard Law School. Completing his degree, he finished his military service as a Captain. Hackett then began a long distinguished career as an international real estate and corporate lawyer.
Throughout his career, he has engaged in pro bono work. Three years ago, Proskauer Rose decided to make a commitment to offer pro bono assistance to indigent Veterans and since has entered into an informal “partnership” with Bloomberg L.P. for this purpose. A Veteran with a long commitment to support those with few financial means, Hackett was a natural to take the lead of this initiative that now engages the expertise of over 70 lawyers and professionals from the two firms.
Originally from Philadelphia, Lewis was deployed to Pleiku, Vietnam in 1966. He recalls Vietnam as "a nightmare....death everywhere." He now suffers with lesions on his feet, wrists and back which he believes were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. "We were flown out to Quang Tri Province (northernmost provincial capital of Republic of South Vietnam.) We didn’t know why. They would kick us out of the choppers. I remember the acrid smell. All the trees were defoliated. It was rainy season and the soldiers stood for hours in puddles, the contaminated water soaking through their boots.”
Returning from Vietnam, Lewis completed a course at RCA Electronics Training Institute, then in the West 50's and went to work covering sports and news for NBC, ABC and other TV stations for the next 15 years. “What they did at that time for those of my ilk (Black) was to hire us for 12 months and then fire us so they didn’t have to make us permanent. This forced us each to move to another station.” Serious health problems and PTSD caused him to miss work. He was fired by NBC, "and then no one wanted to hire me again," he says.
More than 40 years after Vietnam, Lewis had complex challenges relating to benefits. He had come to the City Bar’s Justice Center, where Hackett was a volunteer, to obtain pro bono assistance. The two men introduced themselves. Hackett agreed to take the case.
"I'm not a doctor, but your hand is shaking," Hackett said to Lewis at their first meeting, "You should see a doctor." To put it mildly, Lewis “expressed reluctance.” He had been to VA at some points in the past, but was not enthusiastic about seeing doctors again. However Hackett is both a compassionate and persuasive man. He offered to accompany Lewis to VA's Manhattan Campus, not as his lawyer, but as a fellow Veteran.
Together they went to the hospital and over a period of three days, Lewis was examined by Primary Care Physician Dr. Jay Pendse, who was concerned about Lewis’ apparent symptoms of progressive degenerative disease. He referred him to Assoc. Chief of Neurology Dr. Robert Staudinger who says Lewis presented with tremors and imbalance which are typical symptoms of Parkinson’s. After undergoing neurological tests, Lewis was diagnosed with this illness by Dr. Staudinger.
At VA NY Harbor, Dr. Staudinger says, “Parkinson’s is treated with a combination of medications to improve muscle control and coordination.” Physical Therapy is also often recommended to improve balance and gait. “ I advised Mr. Lewis that Parkinson’s is an illness qualifying for disability as it may be related to exposure to Agent Orange,”says Dr. Staudinger. “ I also provided a letter documenting his condition to support his application for expedited benefits.”
Hackett says Lewis received treatment that was "exceptional in every way." Since then, Lewis has been coming to VA regularly to pick up his medications, including prescriptions to help control tremors in his right hand that make it difficult for him to even sign his name. He says, “I'm starting to have slight tremors in my left hand." His tremors and other Parkinson's symptoms make it hard to sleep at night. In some way, he's hoping these issues will just go away.
When having his photo taken with Hackett, Lewis jokes "people should say ‘money’ rather than ‘cheese’ to produce a smile.” But, clearly, what produces a smile, a sense of reward and inspiration to others above all here, is the caring actions taken by one Veteran on behalf of another.
“Mr. Hackett was very helpful in going to the hospital with me to help me confront my medical problems,” says Lewis. “ I am very grateful to him for what he’s done and what he’s doing. He’s a very courageous man.”