Seeing the VA Through a Patient’s Eyes

The Department of Veterans Affairs has gone through a great deal of bad publicity as a result of problems in management and patient care. Here is a brief description of a favorable experience with the agency.

I have never been a patient at a Veterans Administration (VA) facility. Whether due to having a college degree in English or the Grace of God, I was transferred by the Army from a military occupation as an infantryman and driver of an armored personnel carrier (APC) destined to seeing the jungles of Southeast Asia, to a personnel clerk job when the vast majority of the men in my unit were sent to Vietnam. The paper cuts I may have sustained working for the Army in an office in Frankfurt, Germany have long disappeared.

My father was not so fortunate. He was drafted shortly after graduating from high school in 1941 and served with the Navy in the South Pacific. He was a signalman using flags to enable ships to communicate in a combat environment. He was often on a small craft alongside the Navy’s large battle ships and experienced having the large guns from the battleships sending massive shells over their heads on their way to exploding on the beaches in the South Pacific occupied by the Japanese army.

I asked him if he wore earplugs to muffle the loud explosions. His answer was “sometimes” but “we were about 18 years old and it didn’t seem so important at the time.” Of course, wearing sun blocker (in an era before sunscreen) while on the ocean in a small craft took a back seat to more immediate concerns as well, and a blond man being in the hot sun for long periods of time were not good for the condition of his skin a few decades later.

His hearing is not very good now and probably has not been normal for some time, and he has experienced skin cancer. Anyone can do the math and conclude that a World War II veteran drafted in 1941 will now be in his 90’s.

There is a VA facility in Fayetteville, NC. I do not know how long it has been there but it was not a new facility when I drove by it while attending high school in that area about 50 years ago.

As the VA has determined that my father is eligible to receive care for his loss of hearing and skin condition, I had the experience of visiting the VA facility in Fayetteville from the view of a patient. My expectations were low–in large part due to the deluge of negative publicity for the VA in recent months and years.

To my surprise, the VA facility had been refurbished and seemed modern and well appointed despite the age of the outer facade. Not surprisingly, the waiting room for the audiovisual clinic was occupied largely by veterans of wars subsequent to World War II. My father was an all-state basketball player in high school and always had a great deal of energy. He now uses a walker and moving around can be awkward and time consuming.

The staff at the VA facility was obviously busy and patients were numerous. We had an appointment, arrived early since we knew parking was an issue and were not sure where the clinic was located in the large building. The waiting room was comfortable even though it was almost full. From having served in the Army, I expected a “hurry up and wait” situation and was prepared for a long visit listening to the men swapping stories about their military experiences. To my surprise, the audiovisual specialist called my father’s name out at the time of our appointment.

The audiovisual specialist was David Rothman. Mr. Rothman and the other VA employees in the area treated my father with respect. He was not rushed on the walk to the room for the hearing test. He was warned in advance of possible difficulty when going up or down a ramp while using a walker and a gait that is determined but unsteady. He was not rushed in answering questions related to his hearing loss and Mr. Rothman listened carefully while hearing about the guns from the Navy’s ships and firing shells over the heads of the men in the small boats. Moreover, the specialist took the time to ensure that the new hearing aids were the best possible ones for his conditions and even discovered a foreign object that may have gone undetected in other facilities on earlier occasions.

We were told my parents would be contacted in the near future for a follow-up appointment to pick up the hearing aids and to remove the object from my father’s ear. They were contacted as promised for a future appointment.

There have been numerous serious problems within the Department of Veterans affairs and the treatment of our veterans. Hopefully, those problems are being rectified.

Based on this recent experience, the administrative and medical personnel and the volunteers working there there were trying hard to be thoughtful and caring even when some patients were undoubtedly difficult to deal with. While there are undoubtedly problems within the VA, there are bright spots.

My compliment and thanks to the staff members in Fayetteville that helped with the medical problems which necessitated the visit. Their efforts and expertise are sincerely appreciated.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47