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CA veteran thrilled to be pain free after 20 years after amputation

David Grant Medical Center (Air Force/Released)

Don Bassey finally had enough.

A right knee wracked by cancer left the Vallejo musician with far too many agonizing days and sleepless nights. On a pain scale of 1 to 10?

“A 12,” Bassey said.

No more. With all medical options evaporated, Bassey decided to have his leg amputated Nov. 20 at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.

The bass player and former Empress Theatre general manager realized quickly his life had changed.

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“It’s a trip being an independent person 68 years and all of a sudden you’re not,” Bassey said, thankful his significant other, Erin Bakke, has been at his side.

“I’m creating a lot of work for her,” Bassey said, managing an impish, yet grateful, smile. “She’s been amazing.”

Bassey was an electronics technician and nuclear reactor operator in the U.S. Navy from 1972 to 1978, stationed in Alameda, then Mare Island, Idaho and the Philippines.

“Somewhere along the line — where we don’t know — I picked up something; a subatomic particle that manifested itself in my right knee cap,” Bassey said.

It was toward the end of his Navy career and the knee started aching.

“I thought I strained it or sprained it or bumped it, who knows what,” Bassey said.

He found out at a friend’s house in 1983 when “it was hurting pretty bad … and I went down his front steps and the kneecap disintegrated. I imagine it felt something like that when you get shot,” Bassey said.

A quick ER visit and surgery determined the knee had a rare form of cancer. The doctors, Bassey recalled, “said they had never seen anything like it except in rare cases of radiation exposure.”

The son of a Navy pilot, Bassey enlisted in his mid-20s.

“I needed to do something with my life,” he said. “I liked the military. I liked being in the Navy. But I wasn’t going to make a career of it. I wanted to get back to playing music.”

And he did, performing whenever possible with several bands. But the knee got worse, though Bassey thought the six weeks of radiation in 1983 would be it.

“The leg atrophied. It wasn’t in great shape after all that,” he said.

After two more surgeries — one removed what was left of his knee cap — “I went on my merry way,” Bassey said. “I did fine for a number of years; played competitive softball, worked a job and played music all the time.”

Admittedly, “I wasn’t as careful as I should have been,” Bassey said.”I was young and an athletic person. And the doctors said to do as much as I could do.”

The last couple of years, “it hurt all the time,” Bassey said. “All the time. And nothing would heal. The last few months, I was doing everything I could.”

Acupuncture … a sports medicine doctor … Bassey was running out of options.

“In the end, sleeping was terrible. I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “The only thing keeping it from hurting so terribly would be walking around. Sometimes, I’d spend all night walking around. It hurt so terribly I was almost screaming.”

A vascular surgeon from the VA told Bassey there were “a couple of things we can try,” but if nothing worked, “we’re probably going to have to cut the leg off.”

The words echoed. Bassey heard them the first time he visited a doctor for his knee 36 years ago.

“He said that when I wake up, I might not have my leg,” Bassey said. “I thought, ‘OK, I hope I have it when I wake up.’”

Bassey kept his leg. Eventually, using a cane to get around to gigs that included his popular Monday night with Bakke at the Townhouse in downtown Valley.

“It got to the point where I was going, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to have my leg cut off yet.’ What are the alternatives?”

Bassey even gave a hyperbolic chamber around his knee a shot.

“It seemed to be helping a little, but not getting us far,” he said.

An angioplasty around Bassey’s groin to his deteriorating leg was attempted. It worked, but only briefly. It was tried again.

“That didn’t work, either,” Bassey said. “It was too messed up.”

Still, “There were times all along the way I thought about doing it. I always thought I could find a way to heal it somehow,” Bassey said.

He surrendered. It was time to amputate.

“I said, ‘Let’s do it’ and we (he and Bakke) had a little ceremony and going away party,” Bassey said.

Bakke wrote “Not This One” on Bassey’s left leg and “I’ve Been Everywhere” on the doomed left leg.

As for life’s difficult decisions, “that one’s right up there,” he said. “I didn’t really see that I had any options. I couldn’t live with the pain anymore.”

Through the process, Bassey praised the staff at Grant.

“Super, awesome people,” he said, never wavering after the Big Decision.

“I had to believe I was going to feel better … and I do,” Bassey said.

Coming out of anesthesia and seeing his leg gone was an actual relief, he said.

“I wasn’t in shock when I woke up because I knew it was going to happen. It was kind of like watching a movie you’ve seen 100 times,” Bassey said. “All of sudden, I was in the movie.”

There is, however, that very real “phantom pain,” he said of the brain sending signals to a nonexistent leg.

“Eventually, that will go away,” Bassey said.

Enjoying his first pain-free Christmas in decades, Bassey eagerly awaits fitting for a high-tech prosthetic leg.

Because so many veterans lost limbs in Afghanistan, prosthetics “have come such a long way in 15 years,” Bakke said, joining her other half’s conversation at their Glen Cove home.

“We owe a big debt to the soldiers who lost limbs. Because of them, amputees have it much better,” Bakke said.

Bassey quickly realized among one’s daily life, walking definitely gets taken for granted.

“You get up, walk downstairs, go to the car and you’re not thinking about walking. You’re thinking about everything else,” he said.

Bassey adjusts to this new life, grateful for his family, friends, and supporters, including Ted Puntillo at County Veterans Services in Fairfield who has helped Bassey get 100 percent disability..

“The response has been overwhelming, heart-warming. People I haven’t heard from and people I hear from all the time. It’s carried me through,” Bassey said. “It feels so great to have all that love and care directed toward you. I couldn’t be more grateful and more humbled by all of this.”

Bassey manages to ease back into music, with the gang from the Townhouse actually taking the show to Bassey’s home last Monday.

“I’m not going out in the real world for awhile,” Bassey said. “It’s still healing and that’s the name of the game.”

As for his right leg, “it served me well,” Bassey said.

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© 2019 Times-Herald