5 years after fall on ice, former aircraft mechanic still struggles

Monday , January 22, 2018 - 5:15 AM

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Several years of training and perseverance laid the foundation for Blake Halfacre to land a permanent skilled position at Hill Air Force Base.

But a month later, the aircraft mechanic’s newfound job security disappeared due to a devastating fall on the ice.

The date was Jan. 24, 2013, a day when Northern Utah weather forced air and road travel to be shut down. 

RELATED: Freezing Rain Halts Air, Road Travel in Utah

Five years and two surgeries later, Halfacre still suffers paralysis in his right arm, neck pain, nerve damage and Parsonage Turner Syndrome — a rare and painful neurological disorder that causes muscular wasting and weakness. Alongside those challenges, Halfacre battled a bureaucratic Goliath as he sought out medical remedies. And at times he felt hopeless. 

It took time for the Air Force to recognize Halfacre’s traumatic injury from whacking his head and shoulder that icy day. But he finally underwent orthopedic surgery March 1, 2013, to repair a dislocated right shoulder and acromioclaviuclar (AC) separation, and Workers’ Compensation covered that cost.

About five weeks later, his treating surgeon, Dr. Michael Metcalf, issued restrictions of no lifting, pushing or pulling of more than one pound to the waist and zero pounds above the waist, adding the note “If unable to accommodate, patient is non-working status.”

On May 21, Metcalf increased Halfacre’s capacity from one to five pounds to the waist, but still capped anything above the waist at zero.

But a day later, Dr. Tommy Love of Hill’s Occupational Medicine Services signed off on Halfacre lifting, pushing or pulling no more than five pounds above the waist — a mixup that Halfacre said he sought to get corrected several times without success. By May 29, Halfacre was back on the job, this time performing custodial duties.

Halfacre, a husband and father of four daughters, blames that early return to work — against the advice of his surgeon — for inflicting further damage to his neck and causing a significant and potentially permanent setback in his post-surgical healing. 

By the end of June, Halfacre’s pain became so severe that he stopped working. As an aircraft mechanic, he’d been accustomed to lifting 20 to 50 pounds. He said the physical limitations were both debilitating and depressing.

> Injured HAFB mechanic grapples with chronic pain, denied prescriptions 

Between August 2015 and November 2017, Halfacre tried to get the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) to recognize the additional neck damage and the Parsonage Turner Syndrome he developed because of his early return to work. But five appeals, some with new information, got him the same denial — that he failed to establish compensable work factors related to his claim.

Midway through that process — in April 2016 — Halfacre underwent  a $30,000 neck surgery that Workers’ Compensation would not cover.

“I put a lot of hope in my neck being fixed, and I also put a lot of hope that everybody was going to objectively look at my case and go ‘Oh yeah, his head and shoulder got hit and of course his neck was hurt,’” Halfacre said. 

Eventually, Halfacre’s primary insurance (through the Federal Employees Compensation Act) paid some of that cost. Getting a neck disc replaced lessened his pain but failed to restore use of his right arm.

At this point, he hopes to schedule a second neck surgery that could bring further benefit, but his finances have also taken a hit since 2013. While he receives a portion of his former salary through the Federal Employees Compensation Act, a chunk pays for family health coverage.

Micah Garbarino, spokesman for Hill Air Force Base, responded by email to questions about Halfacre’s situation. “To the extent there may be an open complaint or claim with the Air Force on these matters, the Air Force does not comment to protect the integrity of the process,” Garbarino wrote.

The OWCP, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, determines alleged workplace injuries and occupational diseases. By email, spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the Privacy Act prevents her from even confirming or denying a claim’s existence — absent a release from the claimant.

The six-page decision to Halfacre’s fifth and final failed appeal to the three-judge Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board included a detailed second opinion from Psychiatrist Susan Wiet.

Halfacre’s emotional distress resulted from secondary effects of his traumatic injury, she wrote in her June 2016 evaluation, and the conflicting directives from his surgeon and the Office of Medicine Services fractured trust.

Wiet urged agencies to provide Halfacre with appropriate access to treatment and funding so he could heal and return to some form of work.

That final ECAB denial acknowledged that Love’s work restrictions differed from Metcalf’s, but said Love’s directives — limited lifting to only five pounds above the waist instead of below — didn’t rise to the level of inappropriate medical support.

They again said Halfacre failed to establish a job-related injury for which he could be compensated.

In September 2014, Halfacre filed a $2.5 million federal tort claim with the Air Force’s Occupational Medicine Services office, claiming his surgeon’s instructions were ignored or overlooked and he was forced back to work performing custodial tasks his body wasn’t ready to handle. That tort claim has yet to be decided. 

His desire through all this, Halfacre said, was to be made whole.

“I was trying my hardest to get a medical solution so I could be what I was (an aircraft mechanic),” Halfacre said. “I am approaching the fifth anniversary of my injury ... and I still have no recognition (of the neck injury), one appeal after another.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck. 

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