New VA Polytrauma Center Holds an Open House

The main therapy pool that is heated by solar panels on the roof the the Polytrauma Center and the wall of doors open the pool to the outside courtyard.

The main therapy pool that is heated by solar panels on the roof the the Polytrauma Center and the wall of doors open the pool to the outside courtyard.

It’s not your father’s VA anymore as evidenced by just one look inside the Department of Veterans’ Affairs new Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital at 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.

There’s a putting green, a two-story climbing wall, and an aquatic center for recreational therapy. Each of the 56 new private rooms has large windows for natural light, lush wood paneling, wheelchair accessible bathrooms, a desk and a large-screen TV so veterans and active duty personnel have direct access to education programs and entertainment.

“It doesn’t seem so sterile. I can see green grass. I can see Busch Gardens from here,” David VanMeter, an associate director at Haley who is in charge of facilities, said as he gazed out a second-story window. “There are different things to look at instead of just four cold walls.”

A two-story, therapy climbing wall is part of the common area in the Polytrauma Center second floor area known as Main Street.

A two-story, therapy climbing wall is part of the common area in the Polytrauma Center second floor area known as Main Street.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony, which is open to the public, is scheduled Saturday, April 12, 2014, at 1 p.m. followed by an open house.

Bringing the outside indoors is the theme of the new Polytrauma Center. The home-like environment is filled with technology and conveniences to make life easier for patients like a track system in the ceiling so immobile patients can be moved easily from their bed to the bathroom.

And private rooms are carved into neighborhoods with military inspired names such as Duty, Patriot and Valor. The idea is to create a healing environment where patients and their families feel at home.

So beyond the individual rooms along an angled extra-wide corridor, there are day rooms where families can socialize.

Freeze-dried palm trees line the Main Street common area at the Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center where patients can relax at the internet cafe. There are cooking facilities and a children's play area as well as access to an outdoor deck.

Freeze-dried palm trees line the Main Street common area at the Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center where patients can relax at the internet cafe. There are cooking facilities and a children’s play area as well as access to an outdoor deck.

There’s a two-story atrium called “Main Street” that is lined with freeze-dried, 20-foot palm trees. The concept is bringing the outdoors inside.

Main Street is filled with natural light. It’s a place where veterans can relax at the internet café or take a turn at the two-story climbing wall.

“You have to think of the veterans on active duty we’re seeing. One day they are in the field. They are serving in combat. They are active. They are young. They have expectations a different generation of veterans may not have had,” VanMeter said. “And now, we’re trying to tool what we provide here to them.”

The hallways are angled so the design doesn't feel institutional and the 56 private rooms are broken up into neighborhoods with military inspired names like Valor.

The hallways are angled so the design doesn’t feel institutional and the 56 private rooms are broken up into neighborhoods with military inspired names like Valor.

Interior glass walls continue the open feeling allowing a view inside the rehabilitation center and the kitchen of the transitional apartment. And it’s overlooked by a balcony. The third floor is where the general rehabilitation and chronic pain patients call home.

One of the hidden gems on the second floor is an outdoor deck. It’s surrounded on all four sides by buildings. But there is direct access to open sky above complimented by wood planking below and planters filled with greenery to frame the space.

A putting green, basketball court and horseshoe pit are all part of the new, outdoor recreational therapeutic activity courtyard.

A putting green, basketball court and horseshoe pit are all part of the new, outdoor recreational therapeutic activity courtyard.

The aquatic center is a prime example of bringing the outside indoors. The main therapy pool is enclosed on one side with glass doors that can be opened up to the recreational courtyard.

The smaller pool is like a high-tech treadmill that can be raised and lowered for easier patient access.

The recreational space outdoors has a multi-surface area where wheelchair patients can practice traversing stone, brick and gravel surfaces. There’s a putting green, basketball court and a horseshoe pit plus plenty of benches – some of them shaded – for those who want to feel the breeze and sun on their face.

Associate director David VanMeter points to the flat-screen TV that connects patients to everything from education to entertainment.

Associate director David VanMeter points to the flat-screen TV that connects patients to everything from education to entertainment.

You can listen to an audio tour of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Lush wood cabinets and flooring help the private rooms to feel warmer and more like home.

Lush wood cabinets and flooring help the private rooms to feel warmer and more like home.

The exterior of the Aquatic Center.

The exterior of the Aquatic Center.

The circular drive entrance to the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

The circular drive entrance to the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

 

A Flag, a Concert and a Tampa Home for a Wounded Veteran

Painter Scott Lobio. Photo by Yoselis Ramos.

Painter Scott LoBadio. Photo by Yoselis Ramos.

By Yoselis Ramos

Since 9 a.m. Monday, American artist Scott LoBaido has been painting a 80 x 30 foot American flag mural on the north wall of the Tampa Firefighters Museum in downtown Tampa.

LoBaido has traveled through all 50 states painting murals on rooftops as both a ‘welcome home’ and a ‘thank you’ message to our troops. He has not personally served in the U.S. military.

“I have some military in my family, I have never served but I have more freedom than most people in the world,” he said.

LoBaido’s specialty is American flags. “I’ve gazed at the Sistine  chapel, I’ve touched the statue of David by Michelangelo, but my favorite work of art is the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ It’s the most meaningful, powerful, the most recognizable work of art in the world,” he said.

LoBaido’s mural will be dedicated to Sergeant Mike Nicholson, who lost both his legs and his left arm during an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Afghanistan almost two years ago.

The American Flag mural being painted on the side of the Tampa Firefighters' Museum.

The American Flag mural being painted on the side of the Tampa Firefighters’ Museum.

Now, the Gary Sinise Foundation and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation are working together to raise enough funds to build Nicholson a new home in which he can be independent.

These “smart” homes for the most severely wounded U.S. service members cost about half a million dollars and include technology like retractable cook tops and cabinets, automated lighting, and roll-in bathrooms.

To help raise funds for this home, the Gary Sinise Foundation is holding a Lt. Dan Band concert on Friday, May 10, 2013, at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa. That’s Senise’s rock band named after the legless Vietnam vet he played in the movie Forrest Gump.

LoBaido will also be there “speed painting.” LoBaido will paint a more abstract version of the American flag  in only three minutes and then auction it off. All the proceeds go to helping build Nicholson’s new home.

For concert tickets, click here.

Marine Sergeant to Throw Out First Pitch Rays vs. Yankees

Siller (back) and Nicholson give news media a demo before tonight's big pitch. Photo credit Yoselis Ramos.

George Siller (back) and Mike Nicholson (front) give news reporters a demo before tonight’s big pitch. Photo by Yoselis Ramos.

By Yoselis Ramos

At the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees game Monday night, triple amputee Sergeant Mike Nicholson will throw the first pitch from his wheelchair.

Nicholson, 23, was injured by an improvised explosive device – or IED- attack in Afghanistan in 2011. He lost both legs and his left arm and is medically discharged from the Marines.

Nicholson said even though he wrote with his left hand, he always threw with his right. So, he believes he’ll do just fine throwing to home plate.

“I plan on throwing it to the catcher,” he laughed. “That’s my goal right there, getting it to the catcher and make it look good.”

The Tampa Bay Rays along with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation are helping to sponsor Nicholson’s new “smart” home.

That home will have accommodations like ramps, automated lighting, and roll-in bathrooms to help Nicholson be more independent.

Nicholson plays catch and practices his first pitch prior to the Rays vs. Yankees game. Photo by Yoselis Ramos.

Nicholson plays catch and practices his first pitch prior to the Rays vs. Yankees game. Photo by Yoselis Ramos.

George Siller is vice chairman of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation which was started after the 9/11 attacks. Siller practiced throwing the ball with Nicholson before tonight’s big pitch.

“It brings us joy to see him have a full life as he can have. He gave so much for our country and we want to give back what we can,” Siller said.

The two foundations are also sponsoring the Lieutenant Dan Band benefit concert on May 10th  at the Curtis Hixon Park. The proceeds will go towards Nicholson’s new home in South Tampa.

Watch a Quadruple Amputee Use His Two New Arms

Brendan Morrocco at a news conference Jan. 29, 2013 with the surgeons who transplanted his new arms. Photo Credit PBS.org

Brendan Marrocco at a news conference Jan. 29, 2013 with the surgeons who transplanted his new arms. Photo Credit PBS.org

His goal is to hand-cycle a marathon. That is just one aspiration of a young soldier who lost his four limbs to a roadside bomb more than three years ago. He now has two arms, thanks to surgeons and medical staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

It’s one thing to read about the young soldier receiving his transplanted arms – it’s a whole other thrill to watch him as he brushes back his hair with his newly attached hand as shared by MilitaryTimes.

He can move the elbow on his left arm that was not taken in the blast. And now, he can now rotate his left hand slightly on the transplanted arm. His right arm does not much motion yet, but the 26-year-old is hopeful.

“I used to love to drive and it’s, it was a lot of fun for me. So, I’m really looking forward to getting back to that and just becoming an athlete again,” Brendan Marrocco told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

The retired infantry man lost all four of his limbs in a roadside bomb attack in 2009 in Iraq.

You can view a clip of his press conference at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore carried by the Telegraph here.

Tammy Duckworth Named as One to Shake Up Congress

Tammy Duckworth arriving for her speech at University of South Florida Oct 12, 2010.

Tammy Duckworth arriving for her speech at University of South Florida Oct 12, 2010.

An news article by US News names former assistant secretary at the VA and Iraq combat veteran Tammy Duckworth as one of seven new members expected to shake up Congress.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth - One of the first female Black Hawk helicopter pilots to fly combat missions, Duckworth survived a 2004 rocket-propelled grenade attack. She lost both legs and part of her right arm, but managed to safely land her helicopter before attending to her injuries.

Duckworth competed in one of the most bitter races in 2012, against Tea Party incumbent Republican Joe Walsh. Duckworth proved herself as a hefty fundraiser, outspending her opponent by more than $3 million.

Continue reading

The Heart and Soul of a Navy Corpsman

On this upcoming Veteran’s Day, we celebrate servicemembers who fought on the battlefield and all those who supported them like Christian Quintero.

The Quintero Family – left to right – Tara, Noah and Christian. Photo courtesy of the Quintero Family.

The 25-year-old Navy Reservist and University of South Florida student talked with me about his five years on active-duty as a Navy corpsman.

He was only 19 when he began his work assisting on surgeries of the most severely injured like amputees at Bethesda Naval Medical Center – now known as the Walter Reed National Medical Center.

“When I got into the operating room and the first time I was in one of those type of cases, I remember the initial shock, just for a second, I was like ‘Wow,’” Quintero said. “Then after that, my training kicked into gear and I knew what to do.”

He was supposed to be just an observer on that first case in a tiny operating room. But the medical team needed help prepping the young patient who had lost both his legs.

So, Quintero stepped up – his medical training and compassion for fellow servicemembers took over.

“Without getting into specifics, you do see things that most people my age or most people of any age will never see in their life,” Quintero said. “

He carries with him the faces and circumstances of the men and women he cared for when they returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s an unbreakable bond that is difficult for Quintero to talk about.

“There’s a common bond there’s a friendship that only that person and I can understand or veterans for that matter can understand,” Quintero said.

He met his wife, Lara, at Bethesda. She worked in the operating rooms too. They have a 3-year-old son, Noah.

Quintero transitioned to the Naval Reserves last year and enrolled full-time at USF. He was going to study nursing, but changed his major to mass communications.

“I woke up one day and I said, you know, ‘I don’t see myself being a nurse for the next 30 years. And that’s not a knock on the profession because it’s a great profession an honorable profession,” Quintero said. “I decided to pursue my passion which is mass communication.”

His goal: to become communications expert that can help veterans tell their stories and “get the recognition they deserve.”

Quintero currently holds down a part-time job with Vistra Communications, serves in the Reserves, goes to school full-time and is full-time family man. He plans to spend Veterans Day with his family.

Injured Veterans Seek Freedom and Thrills on the Water

Former Staff Sgt. Patrick Crockett, Sr. took up water skiing after a neck injury disabled him.

Putting injured veterans back into sports they played prior to their injury or getting them to try new sports is Jamie Kaplan’s goal. He is a recreational therapist at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital and coordinates the adaptive sports programs.

“You’re looking at a group of ultra-competitive men and women,” Kaplan said. “They got into the military because they like being outdoors, they like being active, they like doing sports and we want to show them that post-injury they can continue to do those things.”

Volunteers from UCanSki2 attach a seat frame to a water ski for the next veteran ready to take to the water. The volunteer group, based out of Winter Haven, co-sponsors close to a dozen adaptive water ski events a year.

More than three dozen veterans signed up to ski Sunday at the Adaptive Water Ski Expo on Seminole Lake in Pinellas County.

Kaplan said water sports are an excellent way to get injured veterans reintegrated into sports.

“Everyone is equal on the water,” Kaplan said adding that adaptive equipment allows even quadriplegics mobility to water ski.

Former Army staff sergeant Patrick Crockett, Sr. had never gone water skiing until after being injured. It seems counter-intuitive that he would try a sport like that after an injury, but he said he challenged himself because he was “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” Continue reading

Adaptive Water Ski Expo Features Tampa Bay Veterans

Photo courtesy of Adaptive Adventures which offers military clinics to reacquaint warriors with sports such as adaptive water skiing.

The waters of Lake Seminole will be churning Sunday as local disabled veterans strap on their skis to participate in an Adaptive Water Ski Expo.

The all-day event is set to start at 8 a.m. and run through 4 p.m. at Lake Seminole Park, 10015 Park Blvd., Seminole, Florida.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital and a ski club for people with disabilities, UCANSKI2, are sponsoring the event as a lead up to hosting next year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The community is invited to watch the skiing expo. If you can’t make Sunday’s event, below is a video from the Veterans Adaptive Water Ski Event on Seminole Lake in 2011.

Afghanistan War Questioned in Congress and Bagram

Cong. Bill Young greets veterans From previous wars returning from an Honor Flight to visit memorials in Washington D.C. on Sept. 18, 2012. Photo courtesy of Bill Young’s Office.

Congressman Bill Young, a Republican who has represented Pinellas County Florida for 42 years, publicly said last week that the U.S. should pull out of Afghanistan.

As chairman of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, Young’s 180 degree shift on the war got noticed.

Young’s change of mind on the Afghanistan War, now more than 10 years old, was reported in his local newspaper, The Tampa Bay Times.

“I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can,” Young, R-Indian Shores, said during a meeting with the Times editorial board Monday. “I just think we’re killing kids that don’t need to die.”

Now, it’s in Time Magazine.

Young’s change of heart is due to a message from one of his constituents, a Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton. The email was sent to Young in June. Sitton and 1st Sgt. Russell R. Bell of Tyler, Texas, were killed by an IED blast on August 2, 2012. Continue reading

A Soldier’s Email to His Congressman

Here is the email sent to Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young in June by one of his constituents serving in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton sent the message in June. He was killed by an improvised explosive device Aug. 2, 2012.

Staff Sergeant Sitton. Photo courtesy of the US Army.

Hello, my name is Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton. I am in the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I am currently deployed with the 4th Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

I am writing you because I am concerned for the safety of my soldiers. This is my third combat tour to Afghanistan, so I have seen the transition in rules of engagement and overall tactics over the past six years. I am only writing this email because I feel myself and my soldiers are being put into unnecessary positions where harm and danger are imminent. I know the threat of casualties in war and am totally on board with sacrifice for my country, but what I do not agree with is the chain of command making us walk through — for lack of a better term — basically a minefield on a daily basis.

I am in a platoon of 25 soldiers. We are operating at a tempo that is set for a full 35- to 40-man infantry platoon. We have been mandated to patrol twice daily for two-to-four hours each patrol on top of guarding our forward operating base and conducting routine maintenance of our equipment. There is no end state or purpose for the patrols given to us from our higher chain of command, only that we will be out for a certain period of time.

I am all for getting on the ground and fighting for my country when I know there is a desired end state and we have clear guidance of what needs to be done. But when we are told basically to just go walk around for a certain amount of time is not sitting well with me. As a brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives, not to mention that the operating tempo that every soldier is on leaves little to no time for rest and refit. The morale and alertness levels on our patrols are low, and it is causing casualties left and right.

Here is an example of how bad things have gotten. Our small forward operating base was flooded accidentally by a local — that being citizen — early one morning a few days ago. He was watering his fields, and the dam he had broke, and water came flooding into our living area. Since our forward operating base does not have portable bathrooms, we had to dig a hole in the ground where soldiers could use for the bathroom. That also got flooded and contaminated the water, that later soaked into every soldier…and his gear.

Instead of returning to base and cleaning up, our chain of command was set on us meeting the brigade commander’s two-patrols-a-day guidance, that they made us move outside the flooded forward operating base and conduct our patrol soaked in urine.

That is just one single instance of the unsatisfactory situation that our chain of command has put us in. At least three of my soldiers have gotten sick since that incident and taken away from our combat power because of their illness caused by unhealthy conditions.

I understand that as a commander you are to follow the orders of those appointed over you. However, there needs to be a time where the wellness of your soldiers needs to take priority over walking around in fields four hours a day for no rhyme or reason but only to meet the brigade commander’s guidance of: you will conduct so many patrols for such an allotted time.

I am concerned about the well-being of my soldiers and have tried to voice my opinion through the proper channels of my own chain of command, only to be turned away and told that I need to stop complaining.

It is my responsibility to take care of my soldiers, and there is only so much I can do with that little bit of rank I have. My guys would fight by my side and have my back in any condition, and I owe it to them to have their best interest in mind. I know they would, and I certainly would appreciate it if there was something that you could do to help us out. I just want to return my guys home to their families healthy.

I apologize for taking your time like this, sir, and I appreciate what you do for us. I was told to contact you by my grandmother, who said you had helped my uncle many years ago. He was also serving in the military at that time.

Thank you again for allowing soldiers to voice their opinion. If anything, please pray for us.

God bless.

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