Finally, a VA check for disabled Oak Lawn Marine's wife

By:  Mark Konkol
Southtown Star

For more than six years, Aimee Zmysly has been the unpaid caretaker for her husband, Yuriy Zmysly, who suffered a brain injury during routine surgery at a military hospital in North Carolina after surviving tours of duty in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. That medical mishap left him disabled, unable to see, walk or talk.

Now, thanks to a new federal law that the Oak Lawn couple helped spur the passage of, caregivers for severely disabled veterans can get a stipend from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Aimee Zmysly’s first check arrived about two weeks ago. It was $3,541.26.

For the 25-year-old Oak Lawn woman, the money was more than just a $12-an-hour subsidy for giving up a career of her own to take care of her disabled husband full time. It was also validation.

“It’s good to be recognized for what I’ve been doing and other people have been doing for years,” she said. “The whole reason why I take care of Yuriy, and have given up a lot, is because I wanted him home. He doesn’t belong in a hospital or a nursing home. It’s a hard job to do, especially when you are husband and wife, and you have all these rolls — caregiver, wife and friend. It gets overwhelming.”

In April 2010, the Zmyslys were living in a tiny room in Aimee’s parents’ house when “Aimee and Yuriy: A Love Story” appeared on the front page of a Sunday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, describing their struggle. When the government notified Yuriy Zmysly it had declared him “medically retired” from the Marines, that sharply reduced his medical benefits, leaving the couple unable to afford the care he needed.

Touched by their story — by Aimee’s devotion to her husband and Yuriy’s determination — and in some cases angry about how the government had treated the couple, Sun-Times readers helped make sure that the next chapter in their life story would be a happier one by contributing to an effort by the not-for-profit organization Salute Inc. to help the Zmyslys. As a result, last September, nearly five years to the day since they’d met, Aimee and Yuriy Zmysly moved in to a newly renovated and fully furnished house.

Among those who read the story and took notice was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Pointing to their struggle, Durbin successfully pushed for the passage of the federal Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. The law paved the way for Aimee Zmysly and others to receive some payment for taking care of severely disabled veterans.

“The paper was the source of the whole thing,” said Durbin. “I met the couple two or three times, and that all came about because you told the story about Aimee and her life, and what she had done was inspiring. She is an amazing person.”

But the VA’s initial plan for how the money allotted for caregivers should be divided didn’t pass muster with Durbin. For one thing, the VA’s rules for caregivers to qualify for payment seemed too complicated and could have left Aimee Zmysly off its rolls of those who would be paid.

“Initially, the VA report was very disappointing,” the senator said. “A limited number of people were getting a helping hand. The Zmyslys and one other couple I had been watching in North Carolina — if they didn’t’ get help, I knew it wasn’t working. We made enough noise where the VA went back and recalibrated the program. There’s not a lot of money for it. But, for those who need it, it’s a huge help.”

Under the program, caregivers receive an average of $1,600 a month. Caregivers like Aimee Zmysly also can get training and 30 days of respite care, so they can take a break from caregiving, even a vacation. So far, the Veterans Affairs Department has approved 560 of 1,600 applicants nationally for the program. In Illinois, 22 of 48 applications have been approved.

“It gives me a sense of independence,” Aimee Zmysly said. “I can pay my own bills. If I wanted to buy something for myself, I don’t have to ask the guardianship to buy it. I can pay off my debt. It’s a good feeling. I’m really grateful it was put in place when it was.”

The Zmyslys have been living independently for 10 months now.

“The whole world was on our shoulders,” Aimee Zmysly said. “It’s nice to have our own space ... Yuriy is healthy and happy and more independent. He takes care of the garden … and waters the plants. He can stand up on his own. He walks with assistance at least 1,000 feet every therapy session with his trainer. He can do sit-ups. He keeps getting stronger and stronger.”

She has some plans for how she’ll spend her check.

“I’m going to take at least one class and start to do things for myself now that I can afford to. I’m gonna try. Without me being healthy, I can’t take care of Yuriy.