On July 26, 2017, the House of Representatives passed an amendment (proposed by Rep. Brat) to a spending bill that would ban all medical research at the Department of Veterans Affairs that could cause pain to dogs. The spending bill itself has not yet passed, however if such a bill was to be passed with the amendment, and also approved by the Senate, it would do huge damage to important medical research conducted by the VA.
The following article by Sherman Gillums Jr was originally published in The Hill on August 8, 2017 under the title “Devaluing human life is no way to thank wounded veterans for their service“. It is reproduced here with permissions from both The Hill and the original author. Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine officer who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2002 while serving on active duty. His career with Paralyzed Veterans of America started in 2004 after he completed rehabilitation at the San Diego VA Spinal Cord Injury & Disease Center. He is an alum of University of San Diego and Harvard Business School.
For a veteran facing a lifetime of paralysis after suffering a spinal cord injury, hope is often the last thing to die. Yet, the recently introduced House bill, H.R. 3197, threatens to crush what little hope to which I, and the approximately 60,000 veterans living with spinal cord injury, cling. The act proposes to reduce investment in medical research, and the reason is as simple as it is controversial: animal research.
Introduced by Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the Act follows reports of experimentation on dogs at the McGuire VA Medical Center in the congressman’s home state. Purportedly disturbing reports revealed that animals were being given amphetamines and suffering heart attacks, among other research-based details that aren’t easily digestible by those outside of the scientific community. The mainstream gut reaction that followed these revelations was easy to predict. When contemplated in a vacuum, the thought of animals experiencing induced pain would bother any reasonable person. However, I do not enjoy the luxury of contemplating these thoughts in a vacuum.
My thoughts immediately shift to the 23-year old soldier I met on a spinal cord injury unit in San Diego. He had a freshly severed spinal cord, fixators that held the bones in his legs together, and chronic pain that often kept him awake all night, despite medication. He also had a two-year old daughter, Marianna, who knew nothing about an explosive device, or how the one that hit her father would change her life forever. Then the two thoughts clashed and bred possibilities— hope —that sprang from what research might offer to him and his daughter. A hope that may now be dying for him, me and those 60,000 other veterans who could benefit from that research.
When House members voted on July 26, 2017 to ban all VA medical research that causes pain to animals, specifically targeting VA’s canine research program, it was the first step toward a complete devaluation of the lives of catastrophically injured veterans. Brat declared, “From what I read, the type of work that [VA researchers] were doing was on the level of torture.”
I understand how reading a report like that would spur intense emotion and abstract horror. But if the congressman had put down the report and accompanied me to a VA hospital, he would have discovered that the price of military service is not abstract. He would have seen firsthand what it’s like to care for a paralyzed veteran with a failing heart on a VA spinal cord injury unit; or another on the polytrauma unit who needs a new pancreas, among other missing body parts that need to be replaced. After that reality check, I’d have asked the congressman, to consider these facts: It was VA’s canine research that spurred the development of the cardiac pacemaker and artificial pancreas the Food and Drug Administration approved just last year, which serves to benefit both veterans and those who have never worn the uniform. Non-VA canine research has also led to the discovery of insulin, new tests and treatments for various types of cancer and has played an important role in ushering in advancements in heart surgery procedures. While that reality may be inconvenient, it’s like freedom and democracy; it all comes at a price. I’d rather that price involve as little human suffering as possible. It’s apparent, however, not everyone agrees.
I would like to leave the legislative debate to the congressman and his colleagues, but it’s the ideology behind this bill that troubles me. Those participating in the debate over the VA’s animal research program appear to fall into two camps: those who believe we should do everything we can to improve the lives of seriously injured veterans, and those who refuse to stare the ugly consequences of war in the face. It is not that simple though. The U.S. military faces the ugliness for its citizens, which includes our public servants. Now that those citizens are faced with the aftermath, some are having second thoughts.
The VA has a responsibility to consistently find new and better ways of treat America’s heroes. Animal research helps the department do that. The program has helped save and improve countless lives, and it will continue to do so—unless ideology, and in some cases extremism on the issue of animal rights, succeed in forcing the public’s attention away from VA waiting rooms, inpatient wards, and rehabilitation gyms across the country. This is where the price of wars across several eras can be seen almost daily, as well as where medicine and science find their ripest opportunities.
Medical and scientific experts in America, as well as across the globe, agree animal research is essential. That’s because only animal research will provide the answers needed to develop revolutionary new treatments. Whether we like it or not, canine research is especially vital to potential medical breakthroughs because of unique traits shared by humans and dogs. In fact, CNN recently highlighted in a February 2017 story how canine research is leading to better results than traditional cancer research efforts.
Despite the hyperbole used by legislators to invoke disturbing images, VA is conducting research that is vital to seriously disabled veterans. That is what cannot be forgotten or eclipsed by words hyperlinked to extreme ideologies. Canine studies address a host of medical problems afflicting them, and it advances treatments that heal them, or at the very least, mitigate their suffering and give them a better quality of life. I’ve seen it for myself, as Paralyzed Veterans of America has collaborative partnerships with Yale University and New Haven VA Medical Center to further the treatment advances that make veterans’ sacrifices endurable.
The research conducted at these facilities includes exploring cures and treatments for fatal lung infections affecting those with spinal cord injuries, dysfunction in brain circuits that control breathing, and whether service dogs reliably reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Orthopedics research conducted with animals is especially important to many VA patients, as it has been essential to the design and testing of new prosthetic devices for veterans who have lost limbs.
Much of the animal research VA is doing aims to benefit a small group of veterans with specialized needs — those who’ve sustained serious injuries in the line of duty. As a veteran who represents tens of thousands within this group, veterans who stand to benefit from VA’s animal research efforts, I am compelled to challenge those who are fighting to shut this vital program down. I ask them, instead, to take a step back and look at things from our perspective. We are veterans who live with severe disability, many still in the prime of our lives. Our lives after service will never be the same as our lives before service, but advances in research will help us experience lives with less pain—and more hope.
It is my sincere hope there will come a time when we don’t need animals for research. Unfortunately, that time has not arrived, and because of the incredible complexity of human anatomy and our still-limited understanding of how it works, animal research will be needed for the foreseeable future. To those who remain unconvinced, I’ll close with two questions: What wouldn’t you do to find a cure for spinal cord injury, cancer, chronic lung infection, orthopedic deterioration, or other serious afflictions associated with military service? Then, what would you do if it was your son or daughter who served and returned home profoundly broken by battle, illness or disease?
For many veterans and their families, these questions are not philosophical. Because for them, hope is indeed the last thing to die. It is now up to Congress to decide whether that hope will be put completely out of its misery.
Sherman Gillums Jr