Thursday, July 29, 2010

Headquarters Command Battalion visits VA hospital in downtown D.C.

Photo By Rhonda Apple
Spc. Johanny Dominquez and Spc. Ricardo Pineda from Headquarters Command Battalion, HHC, USAG spend time chatting with Marine Corps veteran James Tobin, a resident at VA Hospital, Washington, D.C.
For some of the Soldiers from Headquarters Command Battalion on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, spending time with patients on July 23 at a hospital in Washington, D.C. is an experience they will not soon forget. From the moment the group of active duty men and women entered the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Washington, D.C., it was evident this was no ordinary hospital.

Patients called out to the Soldiers in uniform thanking them for their service and seemed very proud to be around the servicemembers. Led by the battalion’s Command Sgt. Maj., Andrea Marks, the Soldiers met in the lobby with VA hospital representative Kirk Kessler for an overview of the hospital. Kessler, an Air Force veteran was joined by Army veteran and VA representative Mark Wiseman.

Within moments of speaking to the group, a patient Wiseman called ‘‘C.J.” wheeled by in his wheelchair to say hello. ‘‘C.J. couldn’t speak for two years, but just last week started talking,” said Wiseman.

After giving the group a brief overview of statistics and records, the Soldiers learned that more than 1,000 patients come into the VA hospital daily for treatment. With 171 acute care beds and 121 long-term care beds available, the Washington, D.C., hospital is a busy place.

Karen Butler from volunteer services escorted the Soldiers on the tour. Next stop was the pharmacy where the group met Ivan Cephas, emergency preparedness pharmacist, and toured the pharmacy staffed this particular day with four pharmacists and a few technicians who work steadily to help fill 900-1,000 prescriptions each day. Cephas said, ‘‘the challenge here is to get the medication to veterans who get no mail where they reside since not all veterans have a regular physical address, but are not necessarily homeless.” He added ‘‘The program is called the homeless program, but it doesn’t mean all veterans who come into the hospital to pick up their medication are homeless.”

The Washington facility also staffs specialty pharmacists in areas such as diabetes and psychiatry.

Continuing with the tour, the Soldiers were walking down a hallway when a group of veterans approached them, excited to see these active duty visitors. ‘‘We’re coming to see if anyone wants to reenlist,” joked 1st. Sgt. Bruce Williams, 42-Alpha (admin) with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U. S. Army Garrison. The vets chuckled as a few gave high fives to the Soldiers.

Physical therapist Ru Gakhar gave an overview and tour of the Physical and Occupational Therapy department, explaining equipment and techniques used to help patients who need therapy. The group also met Gachi Sanchez, another physical therapist. Sanchez said, ‘‘We wanted each area to be like home as much as possible so we have comfortable lounge areas as well as a smoking lounge on the south side patio.”

The Soldiers learned there’s a daily worship service in the lobby of this wing and as the group was escorted away from the lounge area, a VA employee started playing the piano along with a stereo playing an audio track of hymns as a few veterans seated nearby hummed, sang or just tapped their fingers to the music.

VA representative Samuel L. Pitts Sr., a recreation therapist and veteran, joined the Soldiers to talk about the community living center wing of the hospital.

‘‘Currently we have 60 full-time residents who reside in the long-term care wing,” said Pitts. ‘‘When the rooms are full, then we have a total of 200 residents,” he added.

As the Soldiers were escorted through the wing Freedom Way East, Pitts said, ‘‘We recently renovated two of the rooms for some of our younger Soldiers who are in the military of today, so we wanted the rooms to be more modern, with high definition television sets, computer accessible and upgraded furniture.”

Pitts showed the group the medical and clinical director’s offices en route to Freedom Way West wing, passing the hospice lounge where a resident’s guardian can talk to nurses about the patient’s care.

‘‘The medicine carts we’re passing are on the floor 24⁄7,” said Pitts, who suddenly switched emotional gears from energetic, to very somber.

‘‘No one likes to talk about hospice because we all know what that means,” he said.

‘‘As a vet, working here for seven-and-a-half years, you get in a routine. I got use to taking the paper to a patient in this room every morning, Pitts said pointing to a now-empty room. His eyes grew teary and his voice cracked a bit. ‘‘It bothers me today that I have to walk past this room, and I can’t introduce you all to this patient because he isn’t here anymore,” said Pitts.

The group stood silently for a few moments to reflect on what Pitts shared. A few Soldiers wiped their eyes as the tour continued.

Earlier on this morning, Marks gave the Soldiers thank-you cards she brought so everyone could write a note to give to the residents the group visited. The Soldiers stopped during breaks along the tour to write inside the cards, which they said they enjoyed giving as much as the recipients seemed to enjoy receiving. In the lounge area of Freedom Way West, a group of Soldiers stopped to chat with some of the residents, while others split from the tour to visit a few of the bed-ridden residents who do not come out to the lounge.

Spc. Johanny Dominguez, an administrative specialist and Spc. Ricardo Pineda, a carpentry, both with Headquarters Co., USAG, stopped to chat with Marine Corps veteran James Tobin.

The former first lieutenant explained how he was sent to Japan when he was in service and now he spends time playing Wii. ‘‘At first I liked to watch others play, but now I enjoy Wii bowling,” Tobin said.

Many of the residents have special talents. Others are famous. To everyone who works at the hospital, the residents are all special and unique. One of the more colorful residents who had a smile glued to his face the entire time the Soldiers visited was Thomas Owens. ‘‘T.O.” as he likes to be called, bonded almost immediately with Sgt. Delvin Wright, an engineer with Headquarters Company, USAG. ‘‘We’re both from Maryland so we have a lot in common,” said Owens.

‘‘This has been my home for four years,” said Owens, who was in the Army stationed in Vietnam. Owens spends his days in a wheelchair but loves life and looks forward to the days when he can return to Maryland full time. ‘‘I do visit my Family on the weekends and they come here all the time,” said Owens.

‘‘My wife loves to visit and also play bingo at the hospital,” he laughed. Owens showed off photographs stored in his cell phone of the leather purses he crafts. Intricate in detail, Owens spends hours making them.

‘‘I even sent one to the first lady but I’ve not heard from Mrs. Obama yet,” said Owens. ‘‘But I’m hoping she will contact me soon.” Owens produced the photograph of the handsome purse complete with leather work showing the intricate design depicting the first Family.

Butler explained having Soldiers visit the veteran patients at the hospital is not something taken for granted or part of anyone’s job or training. ‘‘They [the patients] feel like they’ve been forgotten,” said Butler.

‘‘When they visit with the Soldiers, hear the active duty service men and women’s stories, their eyes light up like children when they’re excited about something special.”