Episode 22 Transcript

Published: Thursday November 16, 2023

From Medical Malpractice to Champion Athlete: Dez Del Barba Shares His Incredible Story

All He Needed Was a Penicillin Shot: Welcome Dez Del Barba


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia Anderson, and today’s guest is powerful. He is someone who embodies what this podcast is about. We have Dez Del Barba with us today. He is 26 years old. He is a military veteran.

He is a survivor of military medical malpractice that occurred while he was serving in the army during basic training. His story is unbelievable. He overcame a life-threatening infection that required him to have 43 surgeries, and he had to fight for his life.

And here he is, and he is accomplished so much, and he is a badass wheelchair tennis player and athlete, which we are going to dive into as well. That is how we met Dez.

Thank you so much for being here today.

Dez Del Barba: Thank you for having me. I am excited.

Alycia Anderson: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are? Whatever you are comfortable with sharing.

Dez Del Barba: Yeah. So, I am 26 years old. I am born and raised in Stockton, CA. I graduated from Sonoma State University with my bachelors in business management. And I enlisted in the US Army, trying to get into the officer candidate program to go to Officer candidate School.

But yeah, my… the disease, I got while in basic training was called necrotizing fasciitis and I got it from Strep A being missed…, misdiagnosed and not treated correctly.

Alycia Anderson: Strep A meaning strep throat.

Dez Del Barba: Yeah, strep throat, yeah.

Alycia Anderson: Unbelievable. Go ahead.

Dez Del Barba: So, went to Fort Benning, GA. That is where I was stationed during basic. During week 5 of basic training, I started feeling like sore throat coming on basically, and a lot of my peers around me, you know, they are feeling the same way and stuff. So, I requested to go to… You have to request while you are in training to go to the Medical Center. It is called sick call.

So, you have to request to go to sick call and then they will get you a bus and take you over there since it is like, mile… a mile and a half… two miles down the road.

So, the first day that I requested a sick call, it got denied because our drill sergeants did not. They were late to, you know, letting us out of our company. So, we missed the bus, and we did not get to go on the bus to go there.

So, second day requested again and I got to get seen by the athletic trainer.

So, Monday happened, did not get to go see anybody because the drill sergeants messed up their logistics or whatever. So, I got… missed the bus, did not get to go.

Tuesday, made sure that we would get on that bus and go see the medical staff. So, I went to go see the athletic trainer got in. Uh, he basically told me that I was sore from running, you know, in the combat boots all day and stuff. You know, basic training you do a lot of physical activity. You climb up walls, jump down things. And I mean, do all sorts of obstacle courses and stuff like that.

So. Uh, Wednesday, I requested to go to sick call again, but this time was for my throat. I got seen by a doctor who basically swabbed me for strep A and there is two types of strep A so one the results can come back rapidly like within 10-15 minutes, the other one takes 48 hours to get a result back. So, she swabbed me for both. The rapid one came back negative, and then she just gave me throat lozenges for the time being to help with the throat pain, and she told me that she would contact my drill sergeants when the results for the 48-hour test came back.

So, Thursday I kept doing training and as the week progresses, by the way, the pain keeps getting… going up more and more for me, it keeps increasing.

Friday, I go to the athletic trainer again. Leg pain is going through the roof. He gives me ibuprofens and stuff like that. Friday night my throat test comes back, that she swabbed me for, and it comes back positive. They do not notify the trainees at all. What they what the medical staff does is they notify the drill sergeants.

So, she sent my drill sergeants a note, saying that: “Del Barba, positive for strep A. Notify immediately and send to medical center to get penicillin shot.” And, we have like the notes and everything of them sending that. So, it is like it is all like documented and stuff.

No drill Sergeant told me. I do not know if they missed it. I do not know if they just did not care or I do not know if they were like, oh, we will tell them Saturday, next day, whatever.

Saturday, I end up going to the ER because I am feeling horrible. I cannot… I can barely walk. You know everything, my throat feels like sharp blades when I swallow, I can barely eat. And when I get there. They take their vitals, which are again documented and through the roof. They check out my legs which are very swollen. Again, Friday evening, she sent, you know my drill sergeant that, I was positive.

So, Saturday, when I go to the ER it is all documented. It should be in… It should be in the system that I am positive for strep A.

The ER doctor came in, clocked in said I was fine. Literally again documented the time he was in with me it was 2 minutes and like 15 seconds he came in said I was fine, gave me more throat lozenges and sent me back to the barracks.

Sunday was the next day and Sundays in basic training are like… they are for basically quote unquote rest days, where you clean the barracks and you can go to church or the mosque or whatever your religious preference is. So, Sunday I rested and I was feeling horrible. I could not move. Sunday night, I could not sleep. I could not use the restroom. I could not even pee. Uh, like everything was not going well. I was sweating. I fell off my bed. One of my battle buddies… because during the night time you have something called fire watch. So, they ran to go get drill sergeant took about 10-15 minutes. They could not find one.

Waited another two hours… three hours until, like they could find one. Drill sergeant finally came down. Then they took me to the hospital… ER again. And then when I got to the ER. You know, legs are swollen. This doctor noticed something was wrong, and they sent me to off base to a civilian hospital called Piedmont, which is just around the corner from Fort Benning.

And those civilian doctors noticed something was very wrong and something was bad. I remember him taking a scalpel and like cutting, a little piece of my ankle just like and like it was just like purple blood, like the blood, was not red. It was like purple, like black, like it was like infected. And then next thing I know, they put that mask over me to put me out, and then I wake up in Fort Sam Houston, TX.

Had my left leg amputated above the knee, I had major debridement on my right leg all the way up to my under arms and my glute. So, they debrided muscle tissue and everything that was infected by the flesh-eating disease… they debrided off.

So, I had a lot of wound vacs and IV’s and knee and stuff. And at that point, I was not skin grafted yet, but I obviously was going to have to get skin grafted. So, since my legs were all debrided and that is what got hit first. Uh. They had a skin graft, my chest and back, because that is the only good skin I had on my body besides my neck and face.

Uh, yeah. It is spread over 55% of my body. So, 55% of my body is skin grafted and when they called my parents to tell them what had happened.

They told them to make their phone calls to the rest of our family because they said there is a 10% chance that he will live and the other percent chance that he is not going to make it.

They thought they are gonna have to amputate all four of my limbs. I am very grateful that there was only one.

So, it was very intense and bad dark memories, but I am glad to be sitting here with you today to tell the story and to raise awareness for what had happened. So, yeah…

Alycia Anderson: I am so glad that you are too, and that statement that you just made, “I am so glad that they only had to amputate one limb.”

That statement alone is shocking.

What I heard you also say was that this was almost like, it sounds like an outbreak of strep in the barracks, and this was a problem there that was not addressed.

And I feel like we hear a lot about military service injuries and the things that happen to people while in service, but we do not hear a whole lot about malpractice.

How common is this like?

Dez Del Barba: So yeah, usually when you think of like, you know, injuries in the military, they are from combat or deployments, you know, UM, and the medical malpractice within the military is actually more common than you would think.

It is just does not get the media attention when it does happen because. I would say… I do not know the exact statistic, but I would say 90% of the time when there is malpractice in military, that soldier, marine airmen, they die.

So, it is just like this Airman, Soldier, Marine died while in training, you know? And that that is all that gets said.

Really, there is no, there is no really more detail, you know, like what happened with me for surviving.

Now all the details are out and everything is getting uncovered.

I personally have met with numerous families that have dealt with medical malpractice, either their son, daughter, or husband… wife, and like I said, 90% of them that I meet their loved ones are dead. They are gone.

So, I do not know exact statistics, but it is very common and it is something that I advocated for on Capitol Hill testifying in front of the Armed Service Committee for the Subcommittee of Congress, so in front of Congress members on that committee… it was for quality assurance in the military medical.

So basically, they asked me to come testify, tell my story, my personal experience with it. That way these, you know, members of Congress that write the laws and can help make efforts to change it… hear, you know the wrong doings… of you know…, what is going on at a lot of military hospitals.

Alycia Anderson: And I know that we have talked about this and I do not know that I am going to use the right words, so maybe you can help me through it, but I know that you had told me while you were telling me about your incredible story, when we met on the tennis court, that when you are signing up to the military, there’s rules or something that you are not allowed to claim malpractice.

And I know you are working through the Hero Act or… can you talk a little bit about some of the legislation that you are advocating for… that is so powerful to change this.

So hopefully other service members are going to be safer from these horrific events that you had to live through.

Dez Del Barba: Yeah. Let us just say this happened while in a civilian setting, right? Like this…. what happened to me. I would have the right to sue, basically, the hospital staff.

Go to court and get recourse, I guess… for what the hospital staff, you know…, their mess up. There would be disciplinary actions on them…, probably get fired, probably lose their license.

So, in the military we do not have that. It is called the Feres doctrine. So, it protects the hospitals, it protects the medical contractors, it protects the surgeons, the nurses.

Military members, uniformed members, soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors they cannot sue the government for any malpractice claims that happen to them while they are under contract.

So that is something else I am fighting for, me and my family are fighting for, is to give the opportunity to service members to have their chance at recourse, if in court, it is found that there was malpractice that happened, you know, if…

Obviously, the military’s… you can get injured in a whole different amount of ways, so yeah, there is those gray areas, but in certain cases like mine and a lot of other people that I have met, it is right there in black and blue ink that this was malpractice and anywhere else it would have gone to court and etcetera.

That is basically it. So, it is called the Feres doctrine, it protects the government from being sued by active-duty military members and the Heroes Act is basically a proposed act that we are trying to have Congress members pass and it will allow service members to get that day in court against the government.

Alycia Anderson: I cannot believe that these things are not in place, to be honest with you.

You are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia Anderson and we have Dez Del Barba with us today.

He is a survivor of military medical malpractice that occurred while he was serving in the army during basic training.

So, this work that you are doing, powerful.

How can we, as citizens of the United States, advocate for these things to be changed?

Dez Del Barba: I am glad you asked that, because right now is the perfect time to have, you know, all of US citizens to help advocate for this.

The ruling has just opened up to the public for public annotation and comments.

So basically, you write to your local Congress member and you could write to their office and say we support everything that it stands for and as U.S. citizens, we would like this passed for our service members protection. If medical malpractice was to happen during their career to them.

And that is it, as simple as that.

Alycia Anderson: Thank you for sharing that whole story. I know that that is tough. I know it was really difficult.

If anybody is interested in reading more about Dez’s story specifically, start to finish, it is on his website and we are going to leave all of that information in the show notes.

And you…, you need to go and look like…, look at his pictures.

He has been through a lot.

OK I want to… I am going to shift.

Dez Del Barba: OK.

Alycia Anderson: Do we miss anything before I shift because this was a very important?

Dez Del Barba: I might have missed some stuff in detail, but I mean to the listeners like Alycia said.

Like you can just look up my name on Google and there will be my testimony. There will be articles written about what had happened, etcetera.

I do want to note though, during the time that had happened to me, it was an outbreak in Fort Benning.

I had a battle buddy in the same company as me. He passed away from necrotizing fasciitis. He basically had a heart attack from it. I think his body just shut down. But yeah, he passed away and this happened 3 weeks before my case.

And after my case happened, Fort Benning ordered $1.4 million worth of penicillin shots to administer to the whole battalion.

So yeah, that is the only thing I think that I missed, yeah.

Alycia Anderson: We are talking about a penicillin shot. We are talking about, he needed antibiotics in time, so infection did not take over his body.

That is a basic miss and that is horrific.

Dez Del Barba: And not to mention, he left behind his wife, who was pregnant as well so…

Alycia Anderson: When you are done listening to this, go and e-mail your congressman.

And thank you for sharing that journey, Dez. I know it is not easy.

Can we talk about something that I think is so sweet and positive?

Dez Del Barba: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: OK, you and your parents have created an organization called Operation Dez Strong.

You are providing support to children specifically that have had an amputation of any kind. Is that true?

Dez Del Barba: Yes, that is true. So basically, when my injury happened, I guess I call it an injury or accident.

I was in the ICU, and I was getting a lot of mail, just support mail.

My story had made pretty big media headlines and stuff, and during that time, Katie Perez, who is the mom of Jonathan Perez. She saw my story and she reached out to my parents saying, hey, my son also had necrotizing fasciitis through strep A and my son also had his leg amputated above the knee.

Crazy thing about Jonathan though is, Jonathan was four years old when it happened to him. So, Jonathan reached out to me with some support mail and during this time, I am in the ICU bed. I… and… cannot even move. I have to get fed through a tube, and he sends me a letter thing that, you know…, one day we will both have robot legs and we can hang out and…

And just then I researched his story and stuff and I saw everything he had been through the same thing that happened to me, and it just gave me that motivation and inspiration that I am not alone. If this four-year-old boy can do it, then I can too.

So that was a little good moment right there, and we kept in contact with the family. From then on, you know, I am recovering. I am going through everything. When I come back to California and fast forward two years later, we are still in contact with the family and Katie is always mentioning stuff on Facebook about insurance things because Jonathan is a little boy and he is growing and his insurance is not covering on his prosthetic needs.

You know, he needs a new socket because he is getting bigger and everything like that.

So just kind of my idea popped in my head, like…, hey, like maybe we should start something that helps kids like Jonathan that have amputations, because not all insurance is going to cover stuff like that and maybe these families do not even have insurance to help cover it. So, it is like having a prosthetic for amputees it changes your whole world. Like you can now walk and you can kneel down and get up, and you can move. You can walk around. I mean, you are not confined to a wheelchair as much.

Alycia Anderson: You can be independent.

Dez Del Barba: Yeah, you can be independent, yeah.

Alycia Anderson: Quick note on that that I think is so important is to understand like the same thing is a problem for kids that have disabilities and are in wheelchairs. They grow and insurance only allows you to have, say, a new wheelchair every five years or every six years.

Do you know how much growth happens in young kids?

And so that is the same thing with prosthetics. And it is so important what you are doing. OK, so.

Dez Del Barba: Then we connected with Katie and shot out the idea and she was all on board. So, we started a 501c3 nonprofit called Operation Dez Strong. And basically, the mission of it is to help kids under the age of 18 that have amputations with their prosthetic needs, with creating them ADA showers, getting them wheelchairs if they needed, giving them stipends to go play like wheelchair sports like, you know, whatever, just support and financial and emotional assistance for them and their families. To still have a good quality life and it is basically it.

And I mean at… we started it in 2021 December, I think we are helping like at least I want to say 10 to 15 kids. They are all amazing and I know they are all super inspirational.

Alycia Anderson: It is so important and you know, I have met how… I have met your parents they are so amazing. They are just like, the best advocates ever. Their voices are loud and proud for this advocacy work, and which is what is needed for you and in the military but and also for this organization and for the kids.

And so like… this is an organization that I want to support, ongoing, always I think it is so beautiful. It is so powerful and I love that it came from this beautiful note, that is also on your website that people need to go and see.

It is like this little boy drew a picture and it is just encouraging, Dez telling him that it is going to be OK. I went through this, you are going to be OK too, and it is so beautiful. It is giving me the chills right now, I love it.

OK, so you mentioned sports. Your injury was in 2019. Dez he is such an amazing athlete for only being in this community for a really… a short time, he is so good at tennis. I know you play other sports.

I want to hear what it is meant to you to find community within our community, within sports, within activity, within something that makes you feel good and powerful.

Dez Del Barba: It is so weird. OK, so December 2022 end of 2022 time. You know, I was on TikTok and I think I saw, like, some wheelchair players playing wheelchair tennis at the US Open and I believe I saw one that he had an amputation. And then it just kinda… and I was just like, well, that is so freaking cool.

I was like, I did not even know this sport existed and to be at the level of the US open like that is that is pretty awesome. Like, I wanna try this. Like, I just…. I wanna try this sport. I I have never played tennis before, but I was like, this is so cool. Like just while I literally watched the whole match, I was like, this is awesome.

I reached out to… I forgot who it was at USTA NorCal, but they connecting me with Marty, who’s Alycia’s husband, and he is also a wheelchair tennis player. And then me and Marty met up in Roseville tennis courts one day and he has been teaching me ever since.

And then one day he was helping me fix my wheelchair that a loner wheelchair I got from the city of Sacramento and Alycia came out in the garage and me and Alycia met, and then we started talking and then now I am blessed with both of these two amazing people in my life.

But that is basically How I Met Alycia and Marty.

Alycia Anderson: You are so good at the sport one year! You are definitely going to the US Open Paralympics, here you come!

Dez Del Barba: That would be a dream, and that is a big goal right there. So, since Marty’s been teaching me and, you know, giving me pointers, I have been playing all year.

I have been doing tournaments all year. I have been to Baton Rouge. I have been to Grand Rapids, MI. I have been to Dallas. I have been to Salem OR I have been to… and I am going to Atlanta next week.

I am proud to say that I actually won two tournaments already this year, so I am only, you know, getting better. I just, I am super excited to see where the sport.

Alycia Anderson: What has that brought to your life to have these kinds of goals, hobbies, aspirations?

Dez Del Barba: It is completely changed my life because before I was working a sales job and I was just like it was fine… I feel like… I mean…, and we will I am going to get pretty deep now, but at the end of 2022, when you know, I started seeing wheelchair tennis, I kind of realized like what had happened to me happened for a reason, and I believe that now, and I am glad I believe that now.

I believe that I have a bigger purpose than just working a sales job and playing video games.

So, I am glad I have leaped into something to try it, and I think… I believe in myself, that like you know, if I work hard then I can actually can succeed in the sport.

But I mean not only that like the joy the sport brings me, it is like the people I have met like you and Marty.

But I have made like, so many close friends just from seeing them once a month at a tournament and then we live in different states and we still stay connected and it is just so awesome. It is a community where there’s people that are just like me and we have a great time and we play awesome sport and it is just, it is cool, yeah.

Alycia Anderson: We support each other and that feels good sometimes when you are living a life with a disability and you feel like you are the only one.

So, I love that and you are just such a bright light in the sport and I am so proud of, like, how well I cannot wait to see you in L.A. at the Paralympics or something you know, like goals, let us make it happen.

Did we miss anything that we should talk about? Do you feel good? Did we cover everything?

Dez Del Barba: I feel good.

Alycia Anderson: So, I like to end the show with a pushing forward moment… a little inspiration or advice that you could give to our listeners.

Dez Del Barba: Yeah, it is… I mean, it is hard when you are in that moment, but say you are in the ICU bed and you do not see any light, but it just takes one step at a time and each day take another step and from there and you might take three steps back, but then it is all about taking another step forward.

And then in one-year, fast forward two years, fast forward, you will look back and you will be like I cannot believe how far I made it and it is just all about taking that little step every day.

I guess that is the…, little advice right there.

Alycia Anderson: Even if you take a couple steps back you got to keep moving forward. I love it, Dez. Thank you so much for sharing your story and being vulnerable. I know that this stuff is really personal and we are educating our audience on so many things and congratulations on being such an amazing, sweet human being.

I am so glad you are in our lives. Thank you for your time and your friendship, which is going to continue to grow, I know.

And thank you to our pushing forward community who continues to show up for us every week.

Thank you for subscribing. Please review… and every time you show up for us… where our audience is growing, and our platform is growing.

So, I am so grateful… until next time guys, this is Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how you and I roll.