Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Husband Gone, a Life Turned Upside Down— A Fort Bragg Resident Reflects on the Health Care That Was Not There When Her Spouse Needed It Most

Ronald Valadao before his health declined. Judy, his wife of 35 years, describes Ronald as a carpenter, a mill worker, contemplative and playful during quiet moments [Picture provided by Judy Valadao]

Judy Valadao has lived in Fort Bragg for sixty years. She and her late husband Ronald raised their kids there, made their home there, and lived their lives there.

Ronald began to suffer medical complications associated with his digestive system in late 2020. She watched Ronald, a vibrant and powerful carpenter wither away to one hundred pounds, unable to eat or move.

Ronald’s ailments would be the catalyst for a journey into the labyrinth of Mendocino County’s local health care system. For over a year, the pair would navigate general practitioners, specialists, intensive care units, and emergency rooms, both on the coast and inland hoping and praying for the care Ronald needed to be well once again.

Desperate for medical treatment, Judy worked every angle she could at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast to get the specialists her husband needed. At one point, Ronald was put in the emergency room for three days where visitors were not allowed due to COVID-19 concerns, and Judy told us he was put in a small windowless room with nothing more than a bed and a clock.

Ronald and Judy Valadao around the time they first met. Judy laughs when she says her mom called the pair “a couple of hippies.” [Picture by Judy Valadao]

Ronald returned to the comfort of his home, in the care of Judy, still ailing from an illness that had stolen his verve and losing hope that he could get the medical care he desperately needed.

On February 5, 2022, Ronald was having a tough night. Judy remembered he struggled to breathe and could no longer walk. Ron was in the downstairs bedroom because he could no longer make it upstairs. That evening Judy tucked him in, and let their dogs get into bed with him who snuggled with him for a bit. Judy said goodnight and closed the door halfway leaving it open a bit.

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A little while later she heard what she initially thought was something hitting the front door. Ron’s sister arrived at this time and planned to sit with Judy for the evening. She put the sound she had heard aside for a few minutes and decided to peep in on Ronald.

In a few seconds that would last an eternity, Judy realized that sound she had heard was not something hitting the door, but the firing of a handgun. Her husband of 35 years, hurting and hopeless, had taken his own life.

In a swirl of red and blue police lights, neighbors on porches, and strangers in her home, Judy realized the man she loved so deeply was gone. When he could not find the help he needed from the local medical system, he took the power into his hands.

How Could This Happen?

Judy standing next to her hog that she would ride alongside Ronald [Picture provided by Judy Valadao]

Judy, haunted by thoughts of Ronald alone in a hospital bed left untreated, began to reflect on the frailties of Mendocino County’s rural health care. 

She took to social media and posted an open letter to Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andrew Coren. In that open letter, Valadao asked Dr. Coren pointed questions about the role COVID-19 and associated pandemic protocols have had on Mendocino County’s health care systems. 

These questions, born of Valadao’s tragedy, strike at the heart of medical care’s complexities during a pandemic and the inevitability that any set of interventions, proven effective or not, could also induce injury.

Dr. Coren answered her questions to the best of his ability. 

Valadao wanted to know whether “folks with illnesses other than Covid have fallen through the cracks because of lack of beds/staff during this pandemic?”

Dr. Coren said he recognized there was a multitude of factors that could have contributed to patients falling through the cracks. 

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He suggested that some patients postponed visiting a doctor due to concerns about contracting COVID-19 and others might have experienced long wait times delaying the required care. These complications could have been exacerbated by “institutional changes of policies and practices, Dr. Coren explained.

Alternative avenues to medical services, such as telemedicine, were “out of reach for many people with insufficient computer access,” Dr. Coren recognized.

Dr. Coren acknowledged that there is ample evidence chronic diseases got worse during the pandemic. Many patients were unable to adjust medications which might have led to “increases in severe illnesses requiring hospitalizations following admission to emergency departments.” 

The worsening of these chronic diseases could be seen in local hospitals as emergency rooms began to fill not with COVID-19 patients, but those stricken with chronic diseases.

Coupled with the decreased access to health providers, Valadao asked Dr. Coren if Mendocino County experienced a marked rise in deaths due to other causes. Outside of COVID-19, Dr. Coren said, “the only other causes that appear to have increased during the pandemic are deaths due to drug overdose, and suicide during the pandemic.

Judy told us she does not entirely trust the information Dr. Coren provided. “I think the real numbers would tell how many are suffering from other issues not COVID related and how many have been sent home because of the lack of beds/staff.”

Judy and Ronald married on August 22, 1987 [Picture provided by Judy Valadao]

​​Dr. William Miller is the Chief of Staff at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast. He acknowledged Judy’s grief stating, “There are no words that can alleviate the family’s pain and suffering.” He reassured the community, however, that Adventist Health was using the story of Ronald to find “opportunities to improve.”

Dr. Miller told us that Ron’s experience was “influenced by a number of factors”, including “the occasional difficulty in transferring patients to higher levels of care due to lack of available beds,” a shortage exacerbated by COVID-19 surges, and the subsequent rise in hospitalizations.

Regarding Ron’s inability to have visitors during his stay at Adventist Health, Dr. Miller pointed toward restrictions mandated by the State of California “as part of the overall effort to reduce the spread and protect patients and staff at the height of the pandemic.”

Dr. Miller attributes Ron’s long delays in care to recent “shortages in staffing that are affecting healthcare throughout the country, including here on the Coast.” He went on to say that many patients of Adventist Health have experienced “long and often frustrating delays and we apologize for that and wish to reassure folks that we are working to fix these problems, including by aggressively recruiting…”

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Rural health care facilities can prove difficult to staff, Dr. Miller explained, compared to larger, urban areas which are “more desirable, especially for young physicians.” Adventist Health will be hosting career fairs quarterly and exploring “all avenues to bring in new providers to serve our community.”

Fundamentally, Dr. Miller said that Adventist Health is “committed to this community and its hospitals and clinics.” He encouraged all patients of Mendocino County’s Adventist Health hospitals to provide feedback because “it is through hearing from our patients and their loved ones that we learn what we are doing well and what we need to improve on.”

Remembering Ron

Judy standing aside Ronald with their Harleys on a cruise of the Mendocino County coast [Picture provided by Judy Valadao]

Thinking back to her last night with Ron, Judy remembered how her once sturdy husband could not stand or walk. He could barely breathe and was only able to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.” Amid that pain, when Judy asked Ronald that night if he wanted to go to the hospital, he unequivocally said, “No.”

Judy Valadao now stays busy doing projects, renovating her kitchen, walking her dog, and remembering Ronald. She told us that nighttime is the hardest.

Ronald in a quiet moment with his playful eyes and smile peeking through [Picture provided by Judy Valadao]

She is determined to not let the world forget what happened to her husband. She knows that the three days of isolation in the hospital led to Ronald’s loss of faith in the medical system and “sealed his fate.”

She loves the story of her mother calling the couple “hippies” when they first met and Ronald’s hair was long. She remembers his quiet smile, his playful ways, his love.

While digging through her closets, Judy stumbled on a stack of letters Ronald had written her many years ago. One of them was what he titled his “Sweet Heart ‘Thank You’ List” describing all the reasons he fell in love with Judy. “Thank you for loving and trusting me.” “Thank you for making lots and lots of great memories.” Maybe the most relevant, Ronald thanked Judy, “Thank you for listening to me when I was down.”

Editor’s Note

First, for full disclosure, Judy Valadao is a good friend. She is also a contributor to my website, MendoFever, and has also staffed the Mendocino County COVID-19 press conference representing MendoFever.

Second, many aspects of the Emerald Triangle’s rural lifestyle lend themselves to suicide risk factors. Those risk factors, as described by the Center for Disease Control, include barriers to health care, social isolation, and high rates of adverse childhood experiences,

Please remember, if you or a loved one are suffering from mental distress many resources can be accessed including:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-6264, info@nami.org
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): (800) 662-4357
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): (866) 615-6464
  • Mental Health America Hotline: Text MHA to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741

In efforts to educate the public regarding suicide prevention, the following infographic from the National Institute of Mental Health guides warning signs associated with suicide:

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  1. Isolation is cruel and lowers the immune system.It should only be used during dire epidemics. Covid is a profit driven epidemic and one size fits all has zero place in science or medicine.

  2. So sorry for the loss, but let us not forget that the doctor in charge of public heath in Mendocino County was not even in the county during the entire duration of the covid lock down. She was in San Diego, and if she became sick medical care and specialists were but ten minutes away. Our county government did not care.

  3. Matthew, thank you for this. My hope is: others will speak out and changes made so we don’t have to read stories like Ron’s. It didn’t have to end this way.

  4. Great story. Nice tribute and brought me to tears.
    I knew Ron and I love Judy for her strength and admire her for her intellect and huge heart.
    May God console her and her family and bring lasting peace.
    The pandemic has made our health care system extremely challenging and more difficult. I k ow I work in this system.
    Sitting with a dying patient without family present is tragic and brings tears to the caregivers and physicians.

  5. never knew Ron, but my heart breaks for your loss and the pain you are going through. you are all in our prayers. thank you to Matt for this story.

  6. That’s one of the reasons I get so fired up about whenever someone mentions Cornens name. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a murderer. I can’t believe what he did to the community. I think many preventable deaths were in direct result of his reckless policies as well as the states.

    I will never forget what he did and I am so raged and anguished over it. There is no excuse.

  7. I am so sorry for your loss! Especially during an already hard time when people were unsure.
    Unfortunately though the medical system in Mendocino county has been flawed for many years. It started way before covid. I believe they used covid as an excuse. But that’s just me. I suffered for 8 years with a rash no doctor could figure out. When I went in and told them I’m at a point where my anxiety was high and death sounded better they started sending me to other doctors. It took a year after that to be seen at UCSF. So something really needs to change. To many people fall through the cracks cause of insurance or lack of transportation to out of area doctors and hospitals. It’s so sad to see!

  8. Good story about today’s rural life. This could be my family- many parallels/similar circumstances. When people finally realize the medical system that was put forced in place at the 11th hour aka the Affordable Care Act – the “deal” cut with Corporate Managed Care/Hospitals etc., they might take a harder look at who they vote for. There were warnings. Remember: Rationed Care? This is what it looks like, Rural, economically poor areas get the brunt if it. “If you like your Dr., you can keep your Dr. Well, I guess not. If you need an Orthopedic Surgeon, there are over 50 north of Market Street in SF! Can you afford it !!! State of California: recently voted down single payer. Why, couldn’t afford it which is code for giving up all your hard earned dollars in taxes to cover the Cost! Yes-100% of your $ – CA has no printing press for money. You get what:who you vote for. I’m a retired Public Health Nurse

    • Doug, you are correct! But it started even before Obamacare. Back in about 1996, they no longer provide adequate internships and residencies for the number of medical school graduates. There are over 8,000 doctors who cannot practice because they do not have the additional training to be eligible to practice. Instead, Obamacare wants to replace doctors with nurse practitioners and PAs. Don’t get me wrong, the NPs and PAs of yesterday were great additions to the care team. These days, these professions are churned out in diploma mills with on-line degrees. Those of us still practicing are tasked with cleaning up messes from these lesser trained persons. Patients’ diagnoses are delayed while waiting for a specialist when, even medical students can figure out the diagnosis. It is pitiful.

  9. Matt, thanks for the painful, powerful and important piece. The Valadaos have given much to our community, schools and local conversation This one must not have been easy for Judy, but blessings on you both for this effort to enlighten and help others.

  10. I’m so sorry for this senseless loss of life. Our health care system is a joke. When we were required to have medical insurance due to a Obama Care, we ended up having to pay back over $8000 to the irs. Now we are dealing with something similar to Ron’s story. My husband was told by a doctor in November that he’s had a stroke, we’ve been trying since then to get him seen. Finally an appointment in early April where doctor told him, sorry I’m leaving in 2 weeks, I will refer you to a neurologist, we’ll that hasn’t happened yet.
    Thanks for another great story Matt, bringing awareness to this health care issue.

  11. Judy am so sorry for your loss. This is a terrible and overwhelming loss for you and those who loved Ron. Your article leave me questions. What doctors (not names) and test were done? Did he see a specialist? What was the diagnoses of his stomach problems? Did you go in with him at his appointments to know that all of his concerns were addressed? I can’t not pass a judgement on our medical services without knowing the whole story.

    • Liz, the article isn’t for one to pass judgement, it is the story of what one person went through with hopes that solutions can be found so it doesn’t happen again.

  12. Judy is one of my best friends. I saw what her and Ron went through, trying to get the medical help he needed. No one should have to go through what they did. My heart breaks for them both. Ron should still be here.

  13. So sad to read this article. Our prayers are with the Valadao family.
    While my case of dealing with my husband’s digestive illness does have a happy ending, that doesn’t take away from his 6 months of misery before his problem was solved. Depression was setting in from doctors not taking him seriously enough, or taking months to get in with a specialist.
    We live in Ukiah and have the same problem as the coast. Our health care system is broken and needs to be fixed.
    Thank you for sharing this article.

  14. Things aren’t much better over here in Ukiah, I was in the Hospital last week and they treated me great, my discharge papers said i needed to see my doctor within two days of leaving the Hospital. I had a concern about a medication the Hospital had prescribed to me, it was Prednisone 20 mg and they wanted me to take it for a week and just stop taking it. I knew better because i have taken Prednisone from time to time over the past fifty years and every doctor that ever prescribed it to me said don’t just stop using Prednisone come off of it slowly. I did remember this so that’s what i done. When I got home my wife called the Clinic to make an appointment for me. They told her the appointment would be May 15, my wife told them that the Hospital Doctors wanted me to see my Doctor in the next couple of days. I already had an Appointment scheduled for April 12 so my wife said i would be there on the April 07. April 07, i drove into the clinic from Redwood Valley and arrived there 15 minutes early,Walked in and said I’m Mike Tubbs and i have a appointment at 9:00AM the woman at the counter told me that my Doctor wasn’t in that day, I replied but i have an appointment with him and she replied he wasn’t in, do you want to see another Doctor. I replied no this Doctor has seen me for years and knows what’s going on with me. She said she couldn’t help me. So now I’m just doing what i think is right, these doctors or the people representing them don’t give a shit and its getting worse day by day.

  15. “Malignant Neglect” on the part of our local Mendocino Coast District Hospital!
    Judy, there are many more stories like yours and Ron’s, especially, before the pandemic, with regard to MCDH. This should not have happened!
    This reduces me to tears each time I think of yours and Ron’s experience. Something needs to change..and soon!

  16. Judy you are one of the strongest people
    I know. I am heart sick for you and your loss.
    I have lost all my faith (and hopes) in Adventist Health we have had 2 very bad experiences in
    The last 6 months. We can’t do it again. You will always be in my prayers

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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