Nelson De Rego is an American hero. He will not tell you that. He will say he wanted to see the world.
He can remember as a boy he would climb atop a garage, sit there, look at the sky and know there was more to the world than he could see.
“I wanted to see what the other half of the world was like,” he recollects. Over 15 years, De Rego served this country in two branches of the military and through two wars.
At 17 years old, three years after the World War II bombing of Pearl Harbor, De Rego lied about his age and enlisted in the Merchant Marines. From Pearl Harbor, De Rego was put on a convoy sent to the Philippines to expel the Japanese forces occupying the country. Gen. Douglas MacArthur led the group.
De Rego has vivid recollections of the attack. The Japanese planes buzzed over the American ships, targeting them with their guns.
“MacArthur was a great general. But a lot of people died that day, lots of people blown up,” De Rego recalls. “The ship closest to me was a tanker that blew. You could see people jump from it — some of them on fire.”
The ship De Rego was on had its fantail destroyed. They had no gun after that, but were maneuverable.
After the Merchant Marines, De Rego went into the Army. He fought in Korea and was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. In 1959, De Rego married his wife Florence and left the military to care for his new family.
De Rego continued to serve the country as a naval contractor through the Vietnam War. He loaded and unloaded freight cans from the ships. On nine different ships, he cleaned water and chemical tanks, climbing into the tanks to do this work. He finally retired in 1996.
“Even after retirement, I was in great shape,” De Rego said. “Florence and I used to walk all the time.”
Then about 2 1/2 years ago, that began to change. He lost 97 pounds in a year and a half for no apparent reason. He was in the hospital every two to three weeks.
He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe.
But De Rego said COPD does not explain the weight loss or some of the other symptoms such as the intestinal blockages for which he was hospitalized several times. Last Dec. 1, De Rego became a Yolo Hospice patient.
“Yolo Hospice is doing everything they can,” De Rego said. “The new medications they put me on have made an amazing difference.”
Yolo Hospice is keeping a close eye on De Rego’s health. His nurse Cate Frey talks to him frequently and sees him every week to monitor his health, adjust his medication and make sure he has what he needs to remain as comfortable as possible. Also visiting the De Regos regularly are Janet Mueller, spiritual counselor, and Dalila Barajas, social worker.
“Nelson is still running errands with his wife — sometimes he goes in with her, sometimes he stays in the car depending on how he feels,” Frey said. “He is doing his best, every day, to stay active. My goal is to help him in any way I can, any way the Yolo Hospice team can help.”
One of the ways Yolo Hospice has increased its ability to help veterans is by participating in the “We Honor Veterans” program.
This is a national campaign developed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association and the Veterans’ Administration designed to empower hospice professionals to meet the needs of dying veterans.
If you ask De Rego about his health, his response is an honest, but unrevealing, “not good.” Nelson has fallen a few times and is worried he may fall again and break a bone. De Rego also believes his symptoms are a result of breathing asbestos in the ships he worked on, but the asbestos-related mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose.
Veterans like De Rego often experience distinct medical conditions related to their military service such as the mesothelioma. Yolo Hospice has trained its care providers with specialized knowledge and awareness of veterans’ needs. Care providers are prepared to hear veterans’ stories, support associated emotions, manage related medical conditions and have built strong working relationships with regional veterans service officers.
Veterans and other community members who have a life-limiting illness or questions about hospice should contact Yolo Hospice for more information at 530-758-5566 or visit the website at www.yolohospice.org.
— Mary Odbert is Yolo Hospice’s public relations representative. Her column is published monthly.