New VA Director Sets Priorities for Tampa’s James A. Haley

The new medical center director at Tampa's James A. Haley VA, Joe Battle, is an engineer who has served with the VA for more than 32 years.

The new medical center director at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA, Joe Battle, is an engineer who has served with the VA for more than 32 years. He stands before the seal of the Veterans Administration and photographs of President Obama and VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

A new medical director is at the helm of Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center. Joe D. Battle has only been on the job seven weeks but already has a long “to do” list.

“We’re trying to get a new bed tower here and authorized for construction,” said Battle, an engineer who started working for the VA more than 32 years.

The plan is to provide individual rooms for veterans now housed in hospital wards that are almost 50 years old.

“My personal belief is every veteran deserves a private room to be in when they come to the hospital, and unfortunately at Haley we don’t have that in all cases,” Battle said.

He has other priorities such as consolidating VA services back onto the main campus at 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.

“Right now we have a lot of facilities within a 5 mile radius of this campus,” Battle said. “I was joking the other day, it felt like every corner I drove by had a VA clinic of some kind on it.”

In the director's seat less than two months, Joe Battle invited the Tampa Bay news media in for a round-table.

In the director’s seat less than two months, Joe Battle invited the Tampa Bay news media in for a round-table.

The Haley service area of Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties includes more than 90,000 veterans currently being treated by the VA.

Battle, who said he loves technology and innovation, also is working the phone system so callers get a response in less than 30 seconds. Right now, he said, it takes on average about a minute. Providing public Wi-Fi to patients and visitors is another priority.

When it comes to concerns over wait times for medical appointments, Battle said right now 96 percent of veterans get an appointment within 30 days or less. But he’s aiming to make that 99 percent.

Battle hosted a news media roundtable Monday as part of his outreach to get acquainted with the community. He’s already met with several members of congress, visited MacDill Air Force Base, held a mental health summit with local leaders and a town hall with veterans and met with officials from Tampa and Hillsborough County.

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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.

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.

 

Seeking Solutions to Veteran Suicide

crisis_line_veteransVeteran suicide is a real and present problem in the community. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that on average 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

That’s a straightforward statistic for a very complex problem.

Calling it a growing and troublesome trend, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa organized a roundtable to discuss what is being done in the Tampa Bay area to prevent veteran suicide.

“The suicide rate among veterans age 18-24 has skyrocketed 70 percent during the past three years,” Castor told a gathering of about 50 mental health experts, researchers and veteran advocates at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

One thing Castor said she learned is that the group needed to be broadened to include active-duty military to help fight the stigma associated with asking for help.

Depression, financial debt, domestic disputes, a traumatic combat experience – any number of problems can contribute to a veteran feeling that suicide is the only way out.

Carmen Genovese, a licensed professional counselor with the Haley Suicide Prevention Team, said studies have shown that only 10 percent of veterans who commit suicide have been in combat and only 40 percent had deployed.

“The biggest problem I would say that keeps veterans from calling the Crisis Line is that they think they have to be suicidal or homicidal to call,” Genovese said. “That’s why they changed the name a few years ago.”

Genovese was among the mental health experts who attended the roundtable. Prior to coming to Haley, he worked at the Veterans Crisis Line in upper New York state.

Another item Castor gathered from the discussion is that the crisis line is for families and friends trying to get help for a troubled veteran.

“Families have got to understand where they can turn and it may not be a suicide. But it might be some economic challenge or a health challenge and there are folks who can assist,” Castor said.

She called on the attendees to share ideas and stay connected so they can maximize efforts to let veterans, active-duty military and their families where to get help.

Listen to a story from November 2013 featuring the HBO documentary that went behind the scenes at the Veterans Crisis Line and talked with the responders who field the calls for help.

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg Returns to Haley VA

 Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg returns each year to James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa to show the staff his progress. He was severely injured in 2009 and spent two years recovering at Haley’s Polytrauma Center.

Remsburg was on his tenth deployment when he was injured by an IED in Afghanistan. His teammates found him face down in a water-filled canal with shrapnel in his brain.

He was in a coma when he arrived at the Haley.

More than 800 patients have come through the polytrauma system according to Haley Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo, but he remembers Remsburg.

“He’s not a hard one to forget. He was very ill when he came here, very ill,” Cutolo said.

And Remsburg has not forgotten them, the therapists, nurses and doctors.

He returned this year with one goal in mind, to walk, unassisted to Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Haley Polytrauma Center.

Trailed closely by his stepmother, Annie Remsburg, Cory Remsburg successfully navigated about a 10-foot stretch, unaided, and was greeted with a handshake from Dr. Scott and applause from onlookers.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about Cory’s story is he was told by so many, so many people said he couldn’t do things. ‘You’re not going to walk, you’re not going to do this. You know what I mean,’” Scott said. “So, Cory always said, ‘Yes, I’m going to, yes I can.’”

Cory Remsburg responds slowly, “Being a Ranger, I had the mental part down. It’s the physical part I’m learning to overcome.”

His speech is labored because he had to learn to speak all over again. That’s just one of many things he’s had to overcome: dozens of surgeries, blindness in his right eye, a partially paralyzed left side.

He was in a coma more than three months. The treatments and people at Haley brought him back.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

Craig Remsburg, credits a combination of ‘the man above’, Haley’s Emerging Consciousness Program, family and familiarity for bringing his son back.

“We knew that he loved vanilla extract, so we would burn that aroma. We would play Scrubs, he loved Scrubs. So, we had that playing always on a reel,” Craig Remsburg said.

There was no great awakening like in a movie. Instead, it was gradual and took a lot of hard work every day for two years.

As soon as Cory could eat solid food, Dr. Scott would sneak him two Boston Cream doughnuts each morning as incentive.  And even though Cory now lives in Arizona – Dr. Scott is still motivating his prized patient.

He asked Cory for his goals which are to walk independently for a sustainable distance and then run.

“That’s what I hoped you would say. I’ll give you a third,” Dr. Scott said. “Run up hill. Alright? The reason why you run uphill is because the view is better.”

At that suggestion, Cory smiled, held up his large cup of coffee as a toast affirming his new goals and said, “He knows me.”

You can listen to the story which is part of he WUSF Veterans Coming Home project on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Dr. Steven Scott (left) shows off the Haley Trauma Center's treadmill pool to former patient Cory Remsburg (center) and his dad, Craig Remsburg.

Dr. Steven Scott (left) shows off the Haley Trauma Center’s treadmill pool to former patient Cory Remsburg (center) and his dad, Craig Remsburg.

Another Veterans’ Town Hall Set for Today

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center, 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., is inviting veterans and their families to voice their concerns about service and share their ideas on how to improve at a town hall today, Sept. 4, 2014, at 3:30 p.m.

It is the second such veterans’ town hall held in as many days in the Tampa Bay region.

The Bay Pines VA Health Care System held a town hall Wednesday. About 60 veterans attended the Bay Pines event seeking updates and explanations on their specific cases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The town halls, reaching out to veterans, are among the steps outlined by the new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to improve access to care for veterans.

The Haley town hall is planned in the second floor auditorium on the main campus.

USO Opens Its First Center Inside Tampa’s VA Hospital

Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital officially opened a USO Day Room July 1, 2014 located next to the Spinal Cord Injury Center where there are many long-term patients.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

This is the first time a USO center has been built inside of a veterans’ hospital. Senior Vice President of the USO John Hanson said that although the 1,900-square foot space is not the largest USO center, its impact will be “profound.”

“I’ll be honest with you. This is an experiment for us,” Hanson said. “Our entire focus for 73 years, more than 73 years, has been on lifting the spirits of active duty troops and their families. This center is going to serve those needs. It’ll also serve the needs of veterans who come here and the active-duty troops recovering from injuries. It’s going to be their place.”

The day room includes a large screen television for games and movies, a “Kids Corner,” a pool table and an air hockey game.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

Haley VA Hospital Director Kathleen Fogarty said that the features contribute to the therapy of military patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Center, and give them a “home-like situation.”

Several local Taco Bell restaurants raised $30,000 during their “Freedom Bells” fundraiser for the Armed Forces Families Foundation (AFFF) which contributed to the USO project. The AFFF Managing Director Nick Peters said the donation is a testament to military appreciation.

“When you think about it,” Peters said, “we raised twice as much money for the Armed Forces Families Foundation as we do for Boys & Girls Club and World Hunger, which are great charities, but it gives you a sense of the affinity for the military.”

The USO World Headquarters donated $25,000 to the project, and the Tampa Kiwanis donated $2,500 for the “Kids Corner.” Prior to the Day Room, patients’ time with family was spent in their their hospital rooms.

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