Teens Spend Summer Vacation at Tampa’s Haley VA

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

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

When teachers ask this fall: “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Nearly four dozen Tampa teenagers will answer: “I spent it at the James A. Haley VA Hospita.”

For more than a decade, Haley has been operating a summer Youth Volunteer program that gives teenagers insight into health care careers while at the same time helping veterans.

Mairyn Harris will be a ninth grader at Wharton High School this fall. She is spending five days a week this summer at Haley. On Monday through Thursday she helps with clerical work in the administrator’s office. On Sunday she comes back and volunteers with her mother in the long-term unit.

“We work in in the nursing home part with veterans taking them to church, getting them to lunch, coffee, doughnuts that sort of thing,” Harris said.

She also helps with the pet therapy taking care of the therapy dog, Simon.

“Well that’s our future right?” said Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. “She gets exposure to the whole gamut of the acuteness of an illness all the way to the long term care of it. She’s working in our office, so she really sees everything that could possibly happen. She’s great.”

Forgarty sees a lot of herself in Harris.

“I don’t know if Mairyn knows this, but that’s how I started my career was a teen volunteer a hospital in Denver Colorado. And I took care of the CEO. I answered her phones while her secretary went to lunch,” Fogarty said.

Haley’s Youth Volunteer program accepts teens ages 14 to 18 and starts recruiting in April for up to 50 positions.

Camilla Thompson, chief of Voluntary Services, said the teens are asked to volunteer from 80-100 hours, must have a TB test and go through a full day of training. They are then assigned to one of more than 20 different services at Haley like nursing services or the recreational therapy department.

“They get an opportunity to provide like a buddy program where they read to veterans or they may get the newspaper for them or they may assist them with meal prep,” Thompson said. “They get an opportunity to interact with veterans by playing games.”

The volunteers also help take veterans on outings. Thompson said they do limit the teenagers’ exposure to veterans and service members with more severe injuries in the Spinal Cord Injury unit and Polytrauma Center.

“We really tread lightly with that and have open discussions and gain feedback from youth whether or not that’s an experience they’re comfortable with,” Thompson said.

The 47 Haley youth volunteers will finish their summer of service in August with a reception sponsored by veteran service organizations. The teens get a chance to share what they liked most about their summer vacation at Haley. You can listen to the story at WUSF News.

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The National Veterans Wheelchair Games Open

A Veteran demonstrates how Slalom is done at the 32nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games kickoff ceremony Monday. It includes 17 different sports that promote rehabilitation through rigorous competition among Veterans. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

More than 500 of America’s best wheelchair athletes, all disabled U.S. military Veterans are set to compete in the 32nd annual Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The events are being held in Richmond, VA this year. The competition will be hosted in Tampa, FL in 2013.

“The Games display to the world what we already know about these Veterans,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in a news release. “At this competition and during their rehabilitation throughout the year, they show the same determination and grit that they showed during their service to our Nation.”

The Games are presented yearly by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). The National Veterans Wheelchair Games started in Richmond, VA in 1981 with the motto is ‘Thus do we reach the stars.’

Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks with a Veterans at the 32nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which are taking places from June 25- June 30 in Richmond, Virginia. Photographer: Ken Holt. Photo Courtesy Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

The first Games featured 74 Veterans from 14 states competed in sports ranging from table tennis and billiards, to swimming and weightlifting.

Results from the various events are available HERE.

For the third year, stand-up events will be held in archery and table tennis for athletes who have amputations and choose to compete using prosthetic devices instead of their wheelchairs.

Kids day at the games is scheduled Wednesday, June 28, where local children with disabilities will meet the athletes and learn about wheelchair sports.

Admission to the Games is free to the public, and the community is encouraged to attend. Veterans competing in the games come from nearly every state, as well as Puerto Rico and Great Britain.

Tampa is the selected site for the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games on July 13-18, 2013. The James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and the Florida Gulf Coast and Central Florida Chapters of Paralyzed Veterans of America will host the events.

VA Hospitals in Tampa Bay Lengthen Wait Times for Vets

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

Veterans seeking care at both VA hospitals in the Tampa Bay region are waiting longer for care, but with no consequences to the hospitals. That’s because both hospitals expanded its allowable wait times, a major measurable for VA centers, which is not against policy the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Tampa Bay’s two veterans hospitals have changed a much-watched measure of their performance by increasing from 30 to 120 days the time a patient must go without an appointment before being placed on a waiting list, interviews and documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show.

Critics of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say the change is part of a wider VA trend of fudging statistics showing how well facilities serve veterans.

The VA denies the charge.

But at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, a switch from 30 to 120 days this month left the hospital’s waiting list for outpatient appointments much improved. It dropped from March’s 4,981 patients to 1,800 this month, Haley figures show.

The VA Medical Center at Bay Pines in Seminole increased its waiting list threshold from one to four months in late 2010, earlier than Haley, Bay Pines said.

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An Army SGT Recovering from TBI, Works to Stay in Uniform

A young Army sergeant who was selected to train as an explosives expert is now in a fight to stay in uniform.

Earlier this year, 22-year-old Army SGT Amber Greer was looking forward to settling in at her new post, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle and beginning training as an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) expert.

Army SGT Amber Greer helps show off Haley's new Polytrauma Unit equiped with flat screen TVs, private rooms and showers.

March 30th she was driving through a thunderstorm on I-10. Her vehicle hydroplaned. She lost control and hit a tree.

Greer was in a coma for eight days. When she awoke, it took a couple more weeks for her to grasp what happened.

“I literally felt like I was in some dream for a few weeks,” Greer said. “It was like – ‘I’m going to wake up and I’ll have my hair back,’ They had to shave my head for a procedure they had to do so I could live.”

Greer showed me a photo of her with strawberry blonde hair below her waist. But, hair grows back. She had a bigger worry right after her accident.

“The big shock to me was ‘why am I not at work? Why can’t I go to work? I don’t understand why I can’t be around people I served with.’” Greer said. “It was a huge shock to me and something that was so foreign to me. I probably cried for about a week that I couldn’t go to work.”

Greer is recovering at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital. She arrived with several skull fractures, Traumatic Brain Injury, three broken ribs, collapsed lungs and both hips fractured.

She’s expecting a 100 percent recovery and feels fortunate. Greer has been in the Army almost four years is a veteran of the Iraq war and also deployed to Kuwait from her first post in Hawaii.

Right now Greer’s fight is to stay in the Army.

“Due to my brain injury, I cannot do EOD anymore.” Greer said, confessing that her mother is relieved that she will not be an explosives disposal expert. Greer is disappointed but hopeful she will find another specialty. “I cannot be exposed to blast waves for the next year or so due to my injury, but that’s okay I’m going to be picking another new job in the Army and still staying in that uniform hopefully.”

I talked with Greer three days after she officially put back on her uniform more than 10 weeks after her accident.  She’s in Haley’s transition unit and volunteered to talk with reporters who came to the VA to cover the opening of a new Polytrauma Unit. Greer is anxious to help in any way she can.

“I absolutely love serving my country and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life,” Greer said that’s what got her out of bed every morning and into rehab.

I share Greer’s story because it goes to the heart of who is serving in our country’s military ranks – young women and men of courage, determination and dedication to their country.

Here’s hoping Greer’s wish of a full recovery and staying in uniform comes true.

War Veterans “Welcome Home” Event at Tampa’s USF

It’s the Tampa Bay area’s Fourth Annual “Welcome Home America’s Heroes” celebration for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars offering entertainment, giveaways and helpful health and benefits information.

U.S. Soldiers assigned to Bravo Company, 2nd Infantry Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, patrol through the streets of Abu Ghraib, Iraq, May 7, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kani Ronningen/Released)

Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital is hosting the celebration for Florida’s active-duty military members and veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The VA estimates that more than 10,000 veterans from the area have served in the Global War on Terror. They and their family members are invited to the event that also includes free health screenings, information on employment and veterans’ benefits. It’s part of an outreach campaign to assure Florida’s returning veterans are aware of and receive the services and health care they’ve earned.

The event is scheduled at the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, MLK Plaza, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Military members also will have the oppportunity to meet with representatives from the VA, state and community organizations such as the University of South Florida Veterans’ Association, VetSuccess and the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs officals.

Homecoming Celebration for Veterans and Active-Duty

It’s labeled as a “homecoming.” In reality, it’s an opportunity for veterans to take advantage of  free health screenings, job information and to learn about their VA benefits.

Families greeting returned Florida National Guardsmen in December 2010 after almost a year's deployment.

The “Welcome Home America’s Heroes Celebration” for active-duty military and veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is set March 26, a Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the University of South Florida, Tampa Campus, Martin Luther King Plaza.

The USF campus is home to about 1,000 war veterans and was the first to establish a VetSuccess on Campus program in June 2009. VetSuccess provides a full-time, experienced Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor and a part-time Vet Center Outreach Coordinator on campus to support war veteran students.

The “celebration” will give veterans and their families access to members of VetSuccess, the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, USF Veterans Association, USF Office of Veterans Services, state and federal veterans affairs officials as well as elected officials.

You can learn more about the at the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Program and VetSuccess links or call 1-800-827-1000.

Free Caregivers Conference this week

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed a harsh spotlight on the term polytrauma – more than one injury – a problem all too common for returning veterans.

Lee and Bob Woodruff (photo courtesy of People Magazine).

This critical issue will be the focus of the Second Annual Pathways to Resilience Caregivers Conference this Thursday, March 10th, at the University of South Florida Tampa campus. The keynote speaker is Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC News anchor and reporter Bob Woodruff..

This special daylong event is free, open to the public and focuses on the needs of family members and caregivers who are involved in the lives of veterans with polytrauma. It will be held at USF’s Marshall Student Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Lee Woodruff’s speech takes place at 11 a.m.)

While pre-registration has closed, you can still attend. On site registration is available at the Ballroom entrance on the second floor of the Marshall Center.

Bob Woodruff with his daughter Cathryn (left) and son Mack two days after he woke from a coma. Photo courtesy of the Woodruff Family.

Bob Woodruff sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury, TBI, when the vehicle he was traveling in was blown up by a roadside bomb while he was on assignment in Iraq in 2006. Together the Woodruffs founded ReMIND.org, a non-profit organization that helps wounded service members.  Lee has become a national advocate and travels around the country raising awareness of traumatic brain injury and the sacrifices of service members and their families. She and her husband co-wrote the best-selling book, In An Instant, about their family’s journey to recovery.  She will sign copies of her new book, Perfectly Imperfect, at the event. (The book signing is around 12 noon during lunch).

There will be various breakout sessions and special presentations including, “Family Caregivers” by Dr. Steven Scott who is from the James A Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa where he serves as the Medical Director of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Scott is also the Principal Investigator of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. In 2004, Dr. Scott was the recipient of the “Olin E. Teague Award”; it’s the highest honor for treating War-Related Injuries in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  He also received the “National Commander’s Outstanding VA Employee Award” from the Disabled American Veterans in 2007.

Dr. Linda Mona will give a talk about  “Dealing with Sexuality & Intimacy Issues.” Dr. Mona is a licensed clinical psychologist who has advocated for the sexual rights and sexual expression of people with disabilities for the past 15 years.

In addition, Father David Czartorynski will speak in a session titled “Resiliency through Faith & Spirituality.” Czartorynski is the acting chief of the Chaplain Service at the James A. Haley VA Hospital (JAHVA) in Tampa.  He specializes in pastoral care to spinal cord injury patients and polytrauma.

And Shealyn Holt, who is the Family Caregiver Coordinator at the Washington, D.C. office of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, will talk about  “Caregiver Resources.” Holt conducts research on traumatic brain injury and advocates for patient and family education and support.

The day concludes with a CPR training session provided by the USF chapter of the American Red Cross.

I am personally thrilled to be helping to organize this event and am proud of my husband, USAF SMSgt Rex Temple who is volunteering his time as the emcee for the event.  Rex is stationed at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, but he recently spent a year on deployment in Afghanistan where he was embedded with the Afghan National Army. While there, he completed more than 180 combat missions and was awarded the Bronze Star.

We both believe that having one trauma is certainly bad enough, but polytrauma presents a particularly unique set of problems that require a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. But, polytrauma also creates a unique set of demands on those closest to the wounded veteran – compounded injuries, compounded need for care and for understanding. This conference will go a long way toward helping people start to get a handle on the associated issues.

Note: A version of this blog post was first written by me and Barbara Melendez for the USF.edu website.

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