Haley VA Making Strides for Paralyzed Veterans

 (April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


(April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital is using cutting edge technology to help injured veterans rehabilitate.

One of the devices, at the Spinal Cord Injury Center, helping paralyzed veterans stand and walk again is the Exoskeleton.

Using a computer backpack, robotic leg braces and a walker, veteran Josh Baker demonstrated the Exoskeleton during the April 2014 ceremonial opening of Haley’s new Polytrauma Center.

Baker said it didn’t require much effort on his part.

“If you get a good rhythm and you’re good upright, you can actually walk right along and the machine simulates it,” Baker said.

His VA therapists were impressed by how quickly Baker advanced after just two weeks of practice. Baker was on the device’s most advanced setting, where the device takes automatic steps once it senses the veteran’s foot is in the correct position.

One of the features of the Exoskeleton is that it can be programmed with each individual’s weight, height and gait which individualizes the simulated walking, therapists said.

For the first time since his motorcycle accident in November 2013, Baker said the ability to walk with the Exoskeleton gave him “a jubilation feeling.”

Witnessing their wheelchair-bound son walk again that day at Haley was emotional for his parents Laurie and Robert Baker.

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Laurie Baker said anything that makes her son feel better makes her feel better. His father agreed.

“It was incredible,” Robert Baker said. “That’s the first time I got to see him walk since November and it just means so much.”

He said the device also will help other veterans living with disabilities.

“It’s going to help so many other servicemen to just give them the hope that they can stand again when they’re just stuck in a wheelchair,” said Robert Baker. “It’s just a blessing.”

Haley is one of two Ekso Bionic Centers in Florida. The other is located at the University of Miami Project.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

Lessons Learned as Director of Tampa’s Haley VA Hospital

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation's busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center will soon have a new director. Marjorie Hedstrom, the medical center director at the VA in Popular Bluff, Missouri, will take over in just over a week.

The current director, Kathleen Fogarty, is leaving Haley by choice.

She’s taken the same position at a smaller, less hectic VA hospital in Kansas City. That’s after almost four years at one of the nation’s busiest veteran medical centers serving some 200,000 veterans living in the Tampa Bay Region.

 

“I began my career at the Kansas city VA medical center as a clinical dietician in 1986,”Fogarty said.

The 55-year-old director said she’s breaking her rule – to never go back to a previous place of employment. But after serving 32 years in the VA system, she said she is ready to “go home.”

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

She said the Kansas City VA is not as complex or as busy as Haley, but it will help her ease into retirement while bringing lessons learned at Haley.

One of those lessons became very public when a family went to the news media about the VA placing a surveillance camera inside the smoke detector of their family member’s room.

“Do I have regrets? I don’t have regrets. I know the decision was made for the safety of that patient,” Fogarty said. “Would I do something differently? I would make a huge sign on the camera. And would I choose that camera? No I’ve said I wouldn’t choose that type of camera ever again.”

She said the episode prompted other changes like the creation of a code of conduct for families.

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Another issue prevalent throughout the Veterans Health Care system has been long waiting lists for care. It’s one of the reasons why Fogarty was temporarily tapped to take over VISN 18, the VA network that oversees the troubled Phoenix medical center which sparked the whole VA scandal.

“I don’t want you to believe that we have fixed all access problems here at James A Haley because we still, we have a tremendous amount of requests for specialty types of care,” Fogarty said.

To handle that demand, Fogarty extended clinic hours and added Saturday appointments especially in the area of mental health. And for women veterans, Fogarty was instrumental in getting features like a separate entrance designed in the women’s clinic at the VA’s primary care annex.

“I don’t think that there are a lot of VAs that have put lactation rooms in. It was pretty rare to even have a child’s play area,” Fogarty said. “We listened and we really think we have a model.”

Other milestones under her watch at Haley:

  • The first VA hospital in the country to have a USO day room.
  • The opening of the new Polytrauma Medical Center with a climbing wall and other X-Game type recreation.
  • The opening of the American Heroes Café – a restaurant setting inside the hospital.
  • The opening of a 10 bed palliative and hospice unit.
  • A new urology unit.
  • A 100 bed spinal cord injury unit that mirrors the same family resources as the polytrauma center
  • The opening of a 1,501 space parking garage and valet parking at Haley’s two main entrances.

Fogarty will remain as the interim director of VISN 18 until a permanent director takes over then she will settle into her new post in Kansas City. She wasn’t sure of her last day at Haley, however, her replacement starts Feb. 2, 2015.

 

American Legion Seeks Input on VA Care

As part of a national campaign to improve VA health care, the American Legion is planning a town halls throughout the country. On Jan. 12, 2015, a public meeting is set in Madeira Beach, Fla., to discuss veteran care at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System and other local Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities.american_legion_logo

The town hall meeting, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Jan. 12, will be at American Legion Post 273 on 600 American Legion Dr. in Madeira Beach. Local veterans, especially those currently receiving VA health care, are encouraged to attend.

The Legion will also set up a Veterans Benefits Center to help veterans enroll in VA health care and schedule VA medical appointments in Room 100 of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, located at 10000 Bay Pines Blvd. in Bay Pines, Fla. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 14 and Thursday the 15th.

2015 the Year to End Vet Homelessness & Restore VA Trust ?

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

The year 2015 could bring about some momentous changes for veterans.

First, it is the year that the Department of Veterans Affairs set as the deadline for ending veteran homelessness according to a 5-year plan adopted in 2009.

“As that deadline fast approaches, I’m pleased to report that the VA has succeeded in reducing veteran homelessness by approximately 33 percent,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).

Miller, as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, presided over the final committee hearing of the 113th Congress that examined the effectiveness of VA homeless prevention programs.

Miller is troubled by a VA Inspector General’s audit issued December 3, 2014 that found that the VA National Call Center for Homeless Veterans failed to help more than 40,000 callers.

These missed opportunities occurred due to lapses in the Call Center’s management and oversight. The Call Center relied on answering machine technology, instead of counselors, to ensure continuous telephone coverage. (page 3)

“I think you’ll agree this is unacceptable for any government program, but particularly a population that’s as vulnerable as this one is – a population that for some the ability to even make a phone call is a logistical challenge,” Miller stated during the opening committee hearing.

crisis_line_veteransMiller also questioned the need for the roughly 20 different VA programs aimed at getting veterans off the street and into housing.

The executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Baylee Crone, offered an explanation for the range of veterans homeless programs.

“The full picture is complicated,” Crone testified before the committee. “Ending veteran homelessness starts with the veteran and people are complicated. Some individuals with complex needs profiles will be served by several programs. This does not mean that the services are being duplicated but rather the organizations and programs are working together to address specific barriers to permanent housing.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa's James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

Veteran suicide is another topic tackled by the House of Representatives which passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in early December.

The bipartisan legislation increased veteran access to mental health care while requiring annual reviews of program effectiveness.

But the bill was killed in the Senate by retiring, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Veteran organizations are hoping the bill will reemerge in 2015.

And this is also the year when new VA Secretary Bob McDonald hopes to regain the trust of veterans after the crisis of confidence over delayed health care and backlogged claims at several VA facilities.

A January 1st VA blog posted this article, “21 Reasons Why the VA Is Headed in the Right Direction,” with links to videos and documents detailing McDonald’s reorganization plans.

When Fishing Is About More Than the Fish

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

The number of Gulf War era veterans is growing as is the list of non-profit organizations formed to help returning service members.

Heroes on the Water is a top-rated, all-volunteer non-profit organization formed specifically to provide free therapeutic recreation to veterans of all eras, active-duty military and their families.

Florida has seven chapters many of which offer events year round.

  1. Central Florida Chapter
  2. Emerald Coast Chapter
  3. Northeast Florida Chapter
  4. Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter
  5. Space Coast Chapter
  6. South Florida Chapter
  7. Southwest Florida Chapter
Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey’s pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months.

The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water.

“Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water.

“I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.”

Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water.

“The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said.

Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served.

“They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said.

This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

 

Art Therapy in Action at Veterans Open Mic Night

Veterans Open Mic night with co-hosts playwright Linda Parris-Bailey (center) and Andrea Assaf (right).

Veterans Open Mic night with co-hosts playwright Linda Parris-Bailey (center) and Andrea Assaf (right).

Beyond the battlefield and the barracks, some of Florida’s 1.5 million veterans have had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Yet, there are signs that poetry, art, music and performance are helping veterans adjust.

With Veterans’ Day approaching, we bring you their stories this week in a special edition of Florida Matters.

These are highlights from the October 2014 <a href=”http://art2action.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/veterans-open-mic-flyer-2014-vfp.pdf”>Veterans Open Mic Night</a> at Tampa’s <a href=”http://www.sacredgroundstampa.com/”>Sacred Grounds Coffee House</a>. Military veterans meet there every first Sunday to share their talents and stories.

Cheldyn Donovan is a Vietnam Veteran who has experienced homelessness, PTSD, social phobia, but he finds playing the guitar eases his symptoms.

Cheldyn Donovan is a Vietnam Veteran who has experienced homelessness, PTSD, social phobia, but he finds playing the guitar eases his symptoms.

The WUSF <em>Veterans Coming Home</em> project partnered with <a href=”http://art2action.org/veterans-in-tampa/”>Art-2-Action Tampa Veterans</a> to bring you this evening of poetry and music with military veterans.

The emcees for the evening were Andrea Assaf, director of Art-2-Action, and guest playwright Linda Parris-Bailey who wrote the play, Speed Killed My Cousin, about returning veterans.

The highlights feature veterans Charla  Gautierre, Cheldyn Donovan and Marc Reid. Listen below to the Florida Matters 30-minute special show featuring the veterans as performers which aired Nov. 4 and Nov. 9, 2014.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 519 other followers

%d bloggers like this: