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War hero Baker needs help in Medicare battle


Vernon Baker and his wife, Heidy, are enjoying life again after he had most of a brain tumor removed. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Vernon Baker and his wife, Heidy, are enjoying life again after he had most of a brain tumor removed. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Staff writer

People in St. Maries are fussing over Vernon Baker more than they usually dote on the World War II Medal of Honor recipient.

But that’s how people react when they almost lose someone dear to them.

“It’s miraculous he’s still here. Unbelievable,” Marilyn Fletcher said Tuesday. She’s close friends with Heidy and Vernon Baker, the only living black soldier from World War II awarded a Medal of Honor. Fletcher is so relieved Baker is walking and talking again that she’s organized a benefit for him on March 19.

Baker was one of six black American soldiers chosen in 1997 for the prestigious medal. In 1945, Lt. Baker served in the U.S. Army’s last all-black infantry division. He led his platoon in a heroic but losing battle for a German-occupied castle in northern Italy.

Last September, doctors in Seattle removed from Baker’s brain most of a baseball-size tumor. The man who still hunted and chopped firewood at 84 showed few health problems until midsummer, said Heidy Baker.

“His speech got very bad in July,” she said. “I thought he’d had a stroke.”

She called Fairchild Air Force Base for a doctor’s appointment but was told Vernon wasn’t enrolled in the veterans’ program. Baker’s health was so good for most of his life that he hadn’t used Medicare or his veterans medical benefits.

“I was so perplexed,” Heidy Baker said.

A month later, she took Vernon to the emergency room at Benewah Medical Center with pains in his back. An MRI showed the tumor in his brain. He was flown to Kootenai Medical Center where doctors directed him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Heidy Baker said.

Doctors there told her the tumor filled a third of the left side of her husband’s brain.

“They were so surprised someone with such an enormous tumor could function the way he did,” she said.

The tumor was malignant. Surgeons removed as much as they could without causing brain damage, Heidy Baker said. They left two tumors on his spine. Vernon’s condition plummeted and doctors considered life support, but Vernon rallied. Still, he showed little interest in living, Heidy said. She prepared herself to lose her husband.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “I thought I could take him home, take good care of him.”

Vernon returned home three weeks after his surgery unable to do anything for himself. When his consciousness returned three weeks later, he was angry.

“That was not the life he wanted,” Heidy said. “I told him, ‘I’m not ready to let you go.’ “

His mind and body slowly recuperated as Heidy and nurses convinced him to eat and take his medication. Heidy’s heart lightened as Vernon began walking and talking, although with difficulty. Then, the medical bills arrived.

Medicare snafus took Sen. Larry Craig’s influence to correct. Even then, Medicare wouldn’t reimburse the Bakers for the thousands of dollars in bills Heidy had paid with their savings while Craig was untangling the Medicare problem. And Medicare’s share of the medical bills, which are still rolling in, is 80 percent, leaving the Bakers a substantial amount to pay.

The Bakers also owe $20,000 for Vernon’s flight to Seattle. Heidy said Medicare has refused to pay, maintaining that Baker could have had his surgery in Coeur d’Alene. The Bakers lost their first appeal of the Medicare decision.

The Bakers’ battle with insurance and creditors has angered friends.

“I saw the hopelessness of what they were facing,” Fletcher said. “Heidy was scared they’d lose their home. Someone held up as a hero all over the world, then in his declining years can’t get medical coverage … no one should have to go through that.”

The benefit Fletcher organized is March 19 at 7 pm. at the Eagles Lodge on Main Street in St. Maries. It’ll include a dance with live band Four on the Floor and a no-host bar. Admission is free. Fletcher hopes to raise $10,000 to $15,000 at a live auction. She’s collecting donations for the auction now. To donate, call (208) 245-2906 or (208) 245-3464.

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