Technology Assisting Physically Impaired Veterans

Rick Archer with the assisted technology team at Haley VA explains how reflections of infrared light off a veterans pupils can control a typical computer like a mouse or keyboard.

Rick Archer with the assisted technology team at Haley VA explains how reflections of infrared light off a veterans pupils can control a typical computer like a mouse or keyboard.

Have you ever taken a photograph and the camera flash turned the person’s eyes into red or white dots? That bane of amateur photographers is becoming a useful tool for physically impaired veterans.

Rick Archer, an assisted technology therapist at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center, has  a typical laptop computer in front of him. Attached to it is a black device, the size of a toothbrush case, called Eyegaze.

“You’re getting infrared  light coming out and it’s turning the pupil white because that’s what it reads. And once I get myself in place, it says go ahead and type,” Archer said. “You really don’t have to be able to move anything other than your eyes to run it.”

That’s because your reflective pupil acts like a mouse cursor or fingers on a keyboard. A camera captures the reflection and turns it into computer commands.

“I can do Facebook, email, Skype, calendars, music. Anything I want to do with the computer, I can basically do just by looking at it,” Archer said.

He estimates the Eyegaze device costs about $1,900. Paired with a laptop the total cost is about $3,000 to help a physically limited veteran regain quality of life, he said.

The Eyegaze is just one of several devices being used in the Haley VA Assistive Technology department. In the last six months, 134 veterans have been helped by the high-tech devices supplied by the VA when they’re deemed medically needed.

Electrical impulses are all that’s needed to operate another computer-controlled device, said Ursula Draper, an occupational therapist on the Haley VA assisted technology team.

“What I’m demonstrating here is an EMG controlled computer which means the electrical impulses from your nerves. So, on my hand I have an electrode. This is all wireless,” Draper said.

Motion is not needed to operate the computer, making the device ideal for patients who have ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, she said.

“All we need is a little muscle twitch for them to be able to communicate. And they can do anything on this computer that anyone can do they can get to the mail. They can go to the internet,” Draper said. “So, this gives them a way they can reach out to others.”

And there’s technology for veterans who are less impaired, but may have memory trouble, such as a smart-pen and digital notebook that writes, records and backs up notes at the same time.

“It is going to record as you’re writing your notes. So whatever you’re writing, it’s recording at the same time,” speech pathologist Tilena Caudill said.

http://youtu.be/WzTCEpgmTGQ

And if you have a lot of notes, you can use the smart-pen to point to a specific place in your notes on an iPad, and it will replay the recording without having to fast-forward or rewind, she said.

While a lot of this technology is available to the general public, it’s an important symbol to injured veterans and service members, said Steven Scott, director of the new $52-million Tampa VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

“This is sort of a promise that we’ve given those who have served our country. If you ever get injured, you’re going to be able to come to a place that America offers or the VA and we’re going to give you the best  rehabilitation care you can ever get,” Scott said.

 

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.

 

VA Patient Records at Center of Tug-of-War in Florida

A view of James A. Haley VA Hospital from the entrance at the new Polytrauma Unit.

A view of James A. Haley VA Hospital from the entrance at the new Polytrauma Unit.

State health care regulators showed up unannounced for a third time at a federal Veterans Administration Hospital in Florida and asked to view patient records.

That visit to James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa Wednesday appears to be part of a tug-of-war between Gov. Rick Scott and federal VA hospitals.

The governor ordered state inspectors to review VA hospital records and conditions after a national VA investigation indicated that delayed treatment may have led to the deaths of three patients and injury of several others in the VA network that includes Florida, south Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

None of those deaths occurred at Bay Pines VA Hospital in St. Petersburg or James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa.

And state health regulators were advised that federal law prohibits sharing VA patient records when they showed up at the West Palm Beach VA Hospital last week.

Yet, inspectors from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) showed up at Bay Pines Tuesday and at Haley Wednesday according a Haley VA public information officer.

“They asked to inspect our records and we’re working with them taking their concerns,” Karen Collins, James A. Haley PIO, said. “Basically, (the) VA is dealing with it on a regional and national level and to work with the governor’s office.”

Collins said the VA has responded and offered to meet with the governor and state regulators.

However, ACHA did not acknowledge the VA’s invitation. Instead, the agency sent out a press release within hours detailing how two surveyors arrived at Haley Veterans Hospital at 9:41 am and left at 10:02 am “after being declined the opportunity to review any processes.”

Later in the day, the governor’s press office sent out a release:

Governor Scott said, “For the third time, AHCA inspectors were turned away from a VA hospital. I will continue to call for the VA to allow state surveyors to review their processes until the unanswered questions are addressed. I expected the VA to be open to an independent analysis, but they remain close-minded to my calls for accountability and transparency.

“The safety of our veterans is of paramount importance and they deserve answers. My office stands ready to dialogue with the VA about their lack of transparency, and with every VA hospital that turns away state inspectors, my concerns are more heightened, not diminished.”

In Washington, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing Wednesday on the “Continued Assessment of Delays VA Medical Care and Preventable Veteran Deaths.”

The prepared statement for John D. Daigh, Jr., M.D. from the Office of Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs, is available here.

Researching Military Sexual Assault Prevention

Diane Price-Herndl, chair of the USF Women and Gender Studies and the Women's Status Committee.

Diane Price-Herndl, chair of the USF Women and Gender Studies and the Women’s Status Committee.

One in every five women and one in every 100 men have told the VA that they experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.

Those numbers have both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs working on solutions for treatment and the prevention of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The head of the Women and Gender Studies and the Women’s Status Committee at the University of South Florida, Diane Price-Herndl, thinks her academic expertise can help with healing and prevention.

“This is a place where academics have not done our due diligence,” Price-Herndl said. “We’ve got men and women in the service who are suffering. And they are suffering from things that ostensibly my discipline studies and works on.”

She said Women and Gender Studies has done a lot of research on sexual assault in the general population that might prove helpful for the problem in the military.

Credit: Iowa VA

Credit: Iowa VA

So, Price-Herndl is starting that discussion at a one-day symposium on Military Sexual Trauma planned April 8 at USF Marshall Student Center in Tampa.

The idea is to share strategies and research across disciplines and agencies. Researchers from Bay Pines VA and James A. Haley VA will join USF academics from nursing, theater, and other departments. Each will present their current research on MST and there will be a chance to brainstorm.

One session will explore a project Price-Herndl is developing, The Witness Project. It hopes to archive and use the written and oral stories of military sexual trauma survivors as teaching tools for prevention programs developed for the Department of Defense.

Additionally, a round-table is planned at the conclusion of the symposium will take up the problem of sexual assault among the general population on college campuses.

For details on “USF Responds to Military Sexual Trauma: A Research Symposium,” contact Diane Price-Herndl at  priceherndl@usf.edu .

New Study Debunks 88 Percent Dropout Rate for Vets

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

Student veterans using their GI education benefits between 2002 and 2010 graduated from colleges and universities at the rate of 51.7 percent according to researchers with the Million Records Project.

That graduation rate is in stark contrast to the erroneous 88 percent dropout rate among student veterans that two national news organizations reported in 2012 using flawed data.

But ever since those erroneous reports by NBC News and the Huffington Post, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) organization has been fighting the misconception that student vets are at high risk of dropping out.

So the SVA teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse to start the Million Records Project with the goal of developing accurate data on student veteran graduation rates.

Researchers collected information from the VA on nearly 1 million student veterans and paired it with data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The data was scrubbed of any identifying information and then turned over to the SVA.

The Student Veterans of America President D. Wayne Robinson announced the project’s initial findings Monday.

“Fifty-one-point-seven percent of today’s veterans are completing their programs of study and we’re confident that this number will continue to grow as time passes and Post 9-11 GI Bill users have the opportunity to earn their degrees,” Robinson said. “I am very proud to report this number.”

He said the graduation percentage is similar to the general population which he finds remarkable considering the additional challenges that student vets have to handle.

In addition to worrying about academics, 47 percent of student veterans have families and many hold fulltime jobs. Additionally, many Reservists and National Guard members may have their academic year interrupted by a deployment overseas.

Robinson pointed to the example of Kiersten Downs, now a doctoral student at the University of South Florida, who served four years in the Air Force and then joined the Air National Guard while attending college in New York.

“While pursuing her political science degree at Binghamton University in New York, Kiersten’s unit was mobilized just three weeks before finals,” Robinson said. “And so, she was forced to put her education on hold to deploy.”

The Million Records Project is not over, instead, this was just the first of several reports. Future research hopes to look at specific programs and their success at helping student veterans reintegrate and excel  in higher education.

A 6.5 Percent Increase in Veterans’ Budget Proposed

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki speaking at the suicide prevention conference. Photo courtesy of the VA blog.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki speaking at the suicide prevention conference. Photo courtesy of the VA blog.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will have a $163.9 billion budget for the coming fiscal year if President Obama gets his budget through Congress. The extra money will go toward health care expansion, eliminating the disability claims backlog and ending homelessness among veterans.

The proposed VA budget would be a 6.5 percent increase over the 2014 budget according to the VA. There’s a proposed budget increase of 8.7 percent for services specific to women veterans.

“This budget will allow us to continue the progress we have made in helping Veterans secure their place in the middle class,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a written press release. “It is a tangible demonstration of the President’s commitment to ensuring Veterans and their families have the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”

Some highlights from the President’s 2015 budget request for VA.

Major spending categories within the health care budget are:

  • $7.2 billion for mental health;
  • $2.6 billion for prosthetics;
  • $561 million for spinal cord injuries;
  • $229 million for traumatic brain injuries;

Among the programs that will expand access under the proposed budget are:

  • $567 million in telehealth funding, which helps patients monitor chronic health care conditions and increases access to care, especially in rural and remote locations;
  • $403 million for health care services specifically-designed for women, an increase of 8.7  percent over the present level;
  • $3.6 million to open two new national cemeteries in Florida and prepare for the opening of two new rural national Veterans burial grounds.

The budget proposal invests $312 million in technology to address the claims backlog and the budget request targets $1.6 billion for programs to prevent or reduce homelessness, including

Florida Hosts Women Only Veterans Conference

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

There are more than 160,000 women veterans living and working in Florida.

“Many of them don’t even realize – they’re veterans. They feel they’re not recognized as veterans,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA) based at Bay Pines.

Larri Gerson used to be one of those women veterans. She now supervises benefits claims at the FDVA.

“I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years because I didn’t grow up in a military family,” Gerson said.

“It wasn’t until I came here working at the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs that I realized how important it is to have that knowledge.”

So, Florida is sponsoring its first Women’s Veterans Regional Conference, March 7 from 9 am to 1 pm, at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office, 9500 Bay Pines Blvd, St. Petersburg.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Navy veteran Cynthia Brown, a claims examiner and state women veterans’ coordinator, is organizing the conference around the current issues affecting women vets.

“Employment issues, homelessness, mental health and obviously health care and benefits,” Brown said.

One of those benefits rarely used by women is the government hiring preference extended to all veterans according to Jacquelyn Consentino, the FDVA veterans’ preference administrator.

“Men use it. They use it all the time, but for some reason when the women fill out their applications they just glide over it and don’t seem to use it,” Consentino said.

Consentino is one of several panelists who will field questions at the end during an open-microphone session.

“What I want them to know when they come to the conference, I’m here to help them,” Consentino said.

The conference is for women veterans only.

“A lot of times services are geared towards men and their needs and their health issues. But for women, we have separate needs and health issues and this allows for a forum for us to come together,” said Chava Grier, a former U.S. Army military police officer.

The keynote speaker is Dr. Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the VA Center for Women Veterans of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Online registration is not required, but it is preferred. You can find more information at www.floridavets.org and register here.

Listen to the voices of some of Florida’s women veterans in a WUSF 89.7 FM news story.

Camp Lejeune Toxic Water May Link to Higher Cancer Deaths

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

  they shared news of a new study that found Marine and Navy personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. who were exposed to decades of polluted drinking water are dying at a higher rate than military personnel at other bases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s study backs up concerns that contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune may be tied to cancers and illness in as many as 1 million people..

The study found that personnel stationed at the base from 1975 to 1985 had death rates for all cancers 10 percent higher than at Camp Pendleton in California. It compared deaths of 8,964 people at Camp Lejuene between 1975 and 1985, and compared it with deaths of people at Camp Pendleton during the same time period.

Families affected by the tainted water were encouraged to apply for care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet, many are frustrated by the VA red-tape and paperwork according to a report in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

“The VA keeps asking for the same stuff over and over again, and when I send it to them they say they can’t find it,” “It’s pretty crazy,” Englewood’s Cheryl Baillargeon, whose first husband, Dan Albert, died of cancer 24 years ago, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

In 2012, President Obama signed a law that provided health care for people with medical problems linked to the toxic chemicals who lived or worked at the base from 1957 to 1987 reports the Tampa Bay Times.

VAs’ Cemetery Division Receives Top Service Award

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

In a Michigan University survey that ranks customer-satisfaction among Americans, the top service provider is the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

The customer-service satisfaction index is conducted by the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and includes both private sector an public services and good. And the VA’s cemetery division has taken top honors in the past.

What’s significant is that this year the Veterans’ cemetery division earned the highest score ever recorded, a 96 satisfaction rating among either public or private agencies, according to the Washington Post.

Overall, federal agencies ranked at 66 well below private sector entities like property/casualty insurance with 81 customer satisfaction rating or fast food restaurants with an 80 rating. The only sector lower than the accumulation of federal agencies are internet service providers with 65 customer-service rating.

You can read the full American Customer Satisfaction Index and see how the rating are calculated.

President, Congress Acknowledge Recovering Army Ranger

Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg (left) shakes hands with Secretary Eric Shinseki before the State of the Union address. Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg (left) shakes hands with Secretary Eric Shinseki before the State of the Union address. Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

If you didn’t see last night’s State of the Union address, you missed a touching moment that showed our elected officials can agree on some things like honoring Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg. The standing ovation the Ranger received lasted more than two minutes by some accounts. Here’s an account from the VA Blog – Vantage Point.

And there’s a special “shout-out” to the folks over at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center for never giving up and helping Cory out of his coma.

By Renaldo Leal

Last night, after years of pain and rehabilitation, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg sat with the first lady as President Obama delivered the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C. His father and caretaker, Craig, was next to him in the House gallery when the president began to talk about Cory’s injuries and long road to recovery.

“Cory is here tonight.  And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” said President Obama.

What followed was a moment that united all in attendance and Americans watching at home. As Cory stood up from his seat with the help of his father, the House chamber erupted with applause. The smile, thumbs-up and a wave from the soldier to the commander in chief was not only endearing – it was a shining glimpse into how far Cory had come.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for him,” said Craig earlier on Tuesday as he and Cory visited VA headquarters to meet with Secretary Eric Shinseki. “There is a lot going on in America today, and if Cory’s story can add some inspiration to people’s lives … that’s what it’s all about.”

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