Dana M. Nichols
Record Staff Writer
Published Friday, 7 April 2006
Michael Somers was ready and willing to face pain and death on a distant battlefield in defense of his country. But the day last spring when Army Sergeant. Somers arrived in Germany, ready to be deployed to Afghanistan with his unit, he got a different battle – a lump under his arm proved to be an indication of a rare form of cancer that would kill him within a year.
Now his widow, Ladonna Somers, is honoring his memory by trying to make sure that other terminally ill soldiers won't have to make the choice Michael made: to die in terrible pain without adequate pain medication, because that was the only way he could be at home with his wife and two young daughters in his final days.
Ladonna, now a resident of Pioneer, is helping a private foundation raise the money needed to create a hospice apartment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., so that other families can be with terminally ill soldiers receiving treatment there.
“Christmas was pretty dismal this year,” Ladonna said. The family was living in military housing in Maryland so they could travel three or four times a week to Walter Reed for Michael Somers' treatments.
On Christmas Eve, Ladonna saw her husband was declining. She took him to the hospital. He decided to come home on Christmas Day. He died the next day. But at least during those final hours he was continuously with his daughters, Regan, 4, and Faith, born on November 21, 2005.
“That was not possible at the hospital. There was no place for Regan to lay down and take a nap. And the oncology ward is constantly full,” Ladonna said.
At home away from the hospital, on the other hand, it might take up to 48 hours to get a nurse to increase Michael's pain medication dosage when he needed it, Ladonna said. So he decided to struggle through the pain in order to be with his children.
The odds of solving the problem might seem slim, because the days of Walter Reed in its present form are numbered. Sometime in the next five or six years, the hospital will be closed and merged with the Navy's medical center in Bethesda, Md. The federal base closure law bans new construction at sites that will be closed.
But Walter Reed officials and the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation have struck a bargain: The hospital has reserved two double rooms on the hospital's seventh floor for a family hospice suite. The foundation is raising the $200,000 needed to remodel the rooms into a comfortable apartment where terminally ill soldiers can stay with their families but still be close to care.
Army Staff Sergeant Michael Somers, suffering from a rare form of cancer that would eventually kill him, celebrates the birth of his daughter Faith in November.
“From our standpoint, people are dying of cancer,” said Mary Lynn Stevens, vice president of external relations for the foundation. “The room is needed now. We wouldn't want to sit around and do nothing just because the hospital is going to move.”
When the hospital does move, the foundation will raise the funds needed to ensure that the new site also has a hospice suite for soldiers, Stevens said.
Meanwhile, architectural plans for the Walter Reed suite should get their final approval from the Army later this month. Those plans were shaped partly by the Somers family's experience.
At Ladonna's request, there will be a handicap-accessible bathtub, Stevens said, so that dying soldiers can have the comfort of a warm bath.
Michael Somers grew up in Van Alstyne, Texas. His desire to serve showed early. He worked as a volunteer firefighter, medic and police dispatcher before he joined the military seven years ago at age 23. His last assignment before the cancer diagnosis was as a military police officer. The family was stationed at Fort Irwin, just north of Barstow.
Ladonna loved the desert, the quiet and the room for Regan to play. Michael mostly issued traffic tickets. He dreamed of doing more for his country. So he asked to go overseas.
“He joined the military to defend our freedom. The biggest disappointment to him was not being deployed to Afghanistan to be with his unit,” Ladonna said.
Ladonna said people told Michael that his battle with cancer was just as important, but he never saw it that way. He continued to do a warrior's work until the end, even learning to fire his 9 mm pistol one-handed after the cancer forced the amputation of one arm above the elbow. Before his death, he was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant.
“My husband's buried in Arlington (National Cemetery) because that is what he wanted,” Ladonna said. “He was very patriotic. He felt everybody should serve their country in some way.”
SOMERS, MICHAEL DAVID
SSG US ARMY
DATE OF BIRTH: 11/26/1975
DATE OF DEATH: 12/26/2005
BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 1181
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard