Talon News - Good Local News

VETERAN TRANSCENDS HOSPICE

Meet Benny Kling

 

David Edward Albright

Benny sits outside his home in the gazebo he built

"What would you do if I told you, you only have two weeks to live," Benny asked as he looked deep in my eyes after motoring his chair real close. Our conversation was winding down, but not its intensity. His question stunned me a bit. I thought a moment, then answered him.

Remarkably, Benny Kling, of Bloomfield, transcended hospice, which is defined as "health-care for the terminally ill that emphasizes pain control and emotional support for the patient and family, typically refraining from extraordinary measures to prolong life." It's only been about four months since he moved past that condition, but amazingly, is now strong enough that the day before our interview, he cut the grass on his riding mower. Benny lives every day in a state of grace and gratitude, knowing that his level of success is rare.

A highly industrious man, Benny grew up in Iowa and early on learned the value of productivity. Over the years he became certified and licensed in carpentry, plumbing, electricity and sheet metal. His strong work ethic, desire for self-sufficiency and professionalism were his foundation. And throughout life he knew that communication and a sense of humor were keys to problem solving and success.

After many years of public service in law enforcement including, policeman, marshal, under-sheriff, chief of police, crime scene investigator, police academy instructor and FDIC enforcement/security officer, Benny switched fields for awhile. While working in property management, he built a business with eleven employees and traveled extensively before returning to the legal world as an environmental enforcement officer for the State of New Mexico.

No stranger to death, Benny assisted with dozens of autopsies and faced the harsh task of informing families who'd lost a loved one. In Vietnam, as a member of the Army Security Agency, he experienced the devastation and horrors of war. After four years and a nine month tour in Nam, Benny returned to the States injured, and, unbeknown to him, an exposure victim of Agent Orange, widely used to kill jungle growth. This powerful chemical produced an oily film on everything and, combined with extreme humidity, caused skin rashes, breathing problems and much worse. "Unbelievable stuff, they'd spray it and twenty-four hours later it would look like a desert," he recalled. But when the monsoons came the vegetation quickly flourished and more spraying ensued.

"I hid so many of my symptoms - not only hid - I denied them because I liked my work," he said, which ranged from radio repair to manning listening posts and whatever was ordered. After military service, he never researched the effects of Agent Orange, merely carried on with life and the responsibilities of raising a family. Only when his kids brought it up did Benny begin to connect the severe health issues he's faced with the exposure. Even though he'd had a few similar incidents, it was the one in 2013 that hit him the hardest. With his head and upper body feeling super heavy, dizziness and upset stomach, he had to pull to the side of the highway and rest. After about thirty minutes of rest he was able to drive home to Bloomfield. Thinking it had passed he went to work early, but felt sick and couldn't properly function. He checked his blood pressure during lunch break and found that it was sky high, so he went to the clinic next door where they treated his blood pressure and recommended further tests.

Those tests revealed his left carotid artery to be totally blocked and the right one, fifty percent obstructed. It was diagnosed that Benny had suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack, accompanied by peripheral neuropathy, resulting in very limited blood flow to his head and extremities. Other attacks had required hospitalization, but weren't diagnosed. This one was by far the most severe.

In the coming months Benny's condition worsened rapidly with loss of appetite, inability to keep food down, intense weakness, and extreme weight loss, down from his normal 170 to 105. He hurt everywhere, especially in lower back, legs, feet and hands. With such poor blood circulation, the outlook was bleak. After his doctors believed they'd done everything possible, they made the difficult decision to put him on hospice. His voice and emotions breaking a bit, Benny revealed, "I can't tell you how bad that is." Referring to hospice, he said. "Actually it's a slow process of euthanasia; they just want to make sure you're comfortable". At the time he plainly considered it a death sentence.

His pain medication was increased. By 2015 Benny was in great distress, unable to eat or get out of bed without help. The hospice nurses came two or three days a week. Then things began to turn around, he said. "My wife wouldn't let me do it. She had faith in me. Nancy started me on saltine crackers, then put butter on them and then peanut butter. Slowly, through sheer force of will, he gained strength, even with this meager diet, which he maintained for about four months. Simply that and water, until finally he could tolerate his favorite canned meal, Dinty Moore stew. "I came out of that and I could eat a hamburger patty and a few vegetables. Boy, I started feeling better; I could even roll over in bed." Those attending to his health "raised their eyebrows" when they witnessed his tremendous improvement.

"I had friends from Albuquerque and Santa Fe that I'd worked with around the state come by and see me and even pray or sit and hold my hands--and I had too many things I wanted to do."

"You weren't going to give up," I said. "No, and I didn't--thanks to my wife. She would hound me to get up." The San Juan Center for Independence provided a ten-year old motorized wheelchair, which he even rebuilt parts of. "Outstanding people," he proclaimed.

Benny's will to live was, and is, powerful and motivating. Even though he was still unable to walk, he built a deck and a pull-up bar to strengthen his upper body. He even ran for Bloomfield City Council, losing by only eight votes without spending a penny." Always taking life head on, Benny had no choice but to deal with the bank when they tried to foreclose on his house. The mortgage had been sold, who knows how many times, and his payments were being rejected. After his lawyer retired, Benny took the reins of his case, filed his own briefs while bedridden and sued the monster bank. Eventually they capitulated and made him an offer he couldn't refuse - an acceptable new principle and excellent interest rate.

Even with the sharp pain in his feet that persists when he tries to stand, he's decreased pain-killers to a minimum. "Hard part was coming off the narcotics," he said. Astonishingly, Benny's weight is up to 165. Every day for him is a challenge, and also a blessing. Last week he was visited by his son from Alaska, his daughter from Iowa and his grandson, stationed in Italy, brought his girlfriend. They helped Benny get a new mower, went shooting all types of guns and savored their time together. He's very proud of his military service and that of his sons and grandsons, who he honors with five flags in his yard.

Many of those exposed to Agent Orange are long gone, but Benny has dealt with "a little bit of everything and I don't even want to remember those days," he stated. Now that he's faced his own mortality head on, what Benny values most in life is family and friends, "Every day I am grateful and appreciate what I have," he said.

I asked Benny if there was a turning point or specific time when he decided he wanted to live; he said, "I can't answer that completely, but I knew... I just wanted to get out of bed." These hot summer days are still a test for him because his most satisfying activity is working in the yard. He and Nancy have beautifully landscaped their yard, complete with fish pond, redwood deck, hot tub, barbeque, smoker and sink. He built a putting green and a gazebo where he relaxes with the radio, a cool drink and the simple joy of a feeding hummingbird. More projects are planned, like another ramp for his wheelchair to access another pond in the backyard. Photography has always been key to his professional life and now is a favorite hobby.

Benny scooted his wheelchair up close and personal a second time; I knew he was not going to let me off the hook. Seemed like he wanted me to deeply contemplate and answer his question about imminent death. So I said, "I'd probably go into a bit of shock, would reflect on my life a lot, communicate more with my family and loved ones, try to be in the here and now-and likely it would be hard to sleep." After a long pause Benny said, "The emotions that go with you when you see the end - it's not a spiritual thing - it's an individual event, a very lonely feeling of not knowing." I asked him what he thought about the afterlife. He said, "At first it was fear, fear of the unknown, then I got to the point where I didn't care; whatever was going to happen, was going to happen." He said he even reached a place of "serenity and peace." Benny says, "I now live to share my knowledge of life and my experiences. Asked about words of wisdom or advice, Benny said, "Have faith and fight...and what will happen, happens."

 

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