For two weeks in 1994, after she crashed into a steel-and-concrete pole that pulverized her '86 Celica and subsequently cracked her skull, the only word Ellen Georgieff had command of was banana.
"It wasn't that I was crazy or dangerous; it was just I had no memory," she says in the living room of her Tamarac home. "It makes a good movie but a bad life."
Her long-term memory was obliterated when she careened off a Dallas highway. Her short-term memory was so damaged that she could barely read, as she forgot the beginnings of sentences by the time she reached their ends. Her son Ryan was able to take her Christmas shopping, ask what she wanted, purchase the gift with her, and still surprise her when she unwrapped it at home.
"She didn't lose her memory," Ryan says. "She lost her ability to access her memory. Kinda like, do you remember the library used to have a card catalog? Well, when they took them out, remember how nobody could find anything? Same idea."
Nearly 12 years later, Georgieff has days when she feels 100 percent recovered and for more than five years has held a steady job as an operating-room nurse, the same duty she performed in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Yet two grim reminders of her accident linger. She still, for example, has a delicate emotional sensitivity that can set her crying over something as trivial as her newspaper arriving late.
The second problem is less poignant. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provided her a pension in the years after the accident, has been in a protracted fight with her over more than $19,000 it says were overpayments. It's a debt, she says, that's destroyed her credit.
After the auto accident, Georgieff was placed by a nursing agency in various jobs despite her memory problems. But money was still scarce. In late 1996, the bill for a trip to the VA hospital came to a few hundred dollars. Georgieff sought a social worker there to ask if she might qualify for financial assistance, such as food stamps. The report from that meeting, signed by social worker Sharon Crowder, says that Georgieff was earning too much to draw a pension but that she might qualify if her income fell.
Within a few months, Georgieff says, the agency stopped placing her in nursing jobs because she unnerved co-workers who saw her forget names day after day. In March of 1997, certain that Dallas hospitals had seen enough of her, she and Ryan moved to Florida, where she also had a nursing license. The only income she was receiving after arriving in Fort Lauderdale was unemployment insurance, which her employer contested on the grounds that she had never actually been fired. She went to the VA Hospital in Oakland Park for help in getting her unemployment benefits. There, a social worker told her that she had been approved for a VA pension. At the time, she had no income and filled out her forms accordingly; in December of that year, still without work, she told the VA again that her income was zero.
She lived solely on her pension, a little more than $700 a month, until 2000. That's when the VA decided that Georgieff had lied about her income when she originally applied for her pension.
Georgieff says she was telling the truth when she said in 1997 that she no longer had an income. But because she did work at several nursing jobs, making about $10,000 in the early part of the year before the VA pension started the VA decided Georgieff had misrepresented her situation. The VA demanded $29,000 in repayments, but Georgieff convinced the agency that she had made no money at all after 1997. The VA then lowered its demand to the $8,514 it had paid her in 1997.
She applied for a waiver of the debt, but the VA accused her of operating in "bad faith," pointing out that she'd been employed until April 1997 again, before the pension had started.
In July of 2000, the VA cut off Georgieff's benefits, and she went from poor to insolvent. "When you're only making $720 a month," she says, "there's not much left to save." She wasn't eating and had nearly been evicted in early October when she received a call from a Margate hospital, Northwest Medical Center, where she had applied months earlier. Could she start right away, the employer asked, because they were desperate. Georgieff was there the following Monday.
Around the same time, faced with cries from Georgieff and her advocates, the VA got around to reinstating Georgieff's pension. She collected four checks; one she cashed to stay afloat before her first paycheck at Northwest Medical Center arrived, and three she hand-returned to the VA's regional office in St. Petersburg. Finally working her first full-time job since her accident, Georgieff wanted no more to do with the VA.
But matters soon took a turn from the merely irritating to the surreal. On September 28, 2001, the VA notified Georgieff that it had amended her disability pension award. Somehow it tallied her 2000 income at $99,999. Her working income that year, which she says was all earned after October 10 at Northwest Medical Center, was in fact $7,255.81, according to that hospital's W-2 records. Still, the VA remains convinced that her income was precisely one thin dollar short of six figures, though it hasn't explained how the brain-damaged woman who had recently been wrapping crayons in a VA rehabilitation center for less than 50 cents an hour managed to earn the equivalent of nearly two grand per week. The VA insists it overpaid her by $10,564 in 2000.
Now saying that she owed more than $19,000, the VA turned over her debt to a collection agency in 2002.
She's appealed, meanwhile, to the Board of Veteran's Appeals, which so far has upheld the debts.
Overwhelmed, Georgieff in 2004 took a shot in the dark more like 40 of them. She sent a seven-page form letter to each of the politicians featured in a deck of political playing cards she found online whose addresses she could find. In the letter, she laid out her case against the VA. "I should be commended for my courage and strength and for my intense desire to get off welfare," she wrote. "Instead, I am berated and called a liar and a fraud." To keep track of who received the letters, she also requested autographed 8-by-10-inch photos. The Cheneys, Laura Bush, Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, Orrin Hatch, and Donald Rumsfeld all replied with photographs. "We've had some fun with it," she says. Several of the figures, including Bob Graham, Dick Cheney, Gale Norton, and Tom Ridge, forwarded her letter to the VA, to little apparent effect.
Floyd White, a county service officer with the elderly and veterans services division of the Broward County Human Services Department, serves as an advocate for veterans dealing with the VA and has helped Georgieff. He says her case must be resolved administratively before she can advance a legal case.
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"The case is somewhere within the VA," he says. "If you're the one in the process, it's a terrible, terrible place to be. Until she can break the logjam, that's where it's going to stay."
VA officials in St. Petersburg declined to comment on Georgieff's case but did say that federal law authorizes the VA to take aggressive measures to collect debts the VA sees as valid.
"The process works through the office, and we respond to the Board of Veterans Appeals based on what the remand issue is," says spokeswoman Margaret Macklin. "But we have no responsibility for the debt itself."
Georgieff maintains that she doesn't either. But until the VA gets around to resolving the issue, her credit is in a shambles. "Nobody's gonna give me enough money for a cup of joe," she laments. She had another car accident, of sorts, when Hurricane Wilma wrecked her Hyundai Accent. At least this time, she wasn't hurt. And she finally did get a car loan at 12.5 percent interest so at least she can get to work.