Every November I’m invited to share in the family hunting ritual of pulling the deer in from the woods. Amidst the huffing and puffing, one of us manages to exclaim, “ Well, we just passed our cardiac stress test for another year!” But this year, at his annual check-up with the local veterans out-patient clinic, my husband John’s practitioner recommended a cardiology work-up. I agreed to accompany him to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Because we live 250 miles away, John was offered free lodging in what appeared to be refurbished barracks at the old Ft. Snelling. We arrived on Monday, checked in at the VA Travel Office and received our key to dorm-style accommodations — a simply-furnished sleeping room with a lavatory/shower room conveniently located just down the hall. No, it wasn’t the Ritz but after our five-hour drive, we welcomed this generous “perk”. We kicked off our shoes and settled in for the night. The alarm rang early and without ado, we headed across the street to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center’s impressive hospital complex.
The main lobby was teeming with men and women of all ages, many of whom were wearing interesting T-shirts identifying their branch of service, theater of operation, or maybe a catchy military slogan. As I waited for John to complete his initial intake, I watched a richly diverse mix of practitioners and patients boarding elevators destined to floors devoted to specific medical specialties. I reflected upon the impact of America’s wars on every generation. When John returned, paperwork in hand, we scanned a large wall map, got our bearings and began searching for our first stop on this day of diagnostic testing.
The VA hospital is a maze of long, windowless hallways. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the institutional quality of its layout and protocol were it not for the staff who work there. Unlike receptionists at many hospitals, often seated behind thick glass barriers and computer monitors, who with minimal eye contact instruct you to “find a seat and wait for someone to call,” here we encountered friendly, down-to-earth people who didn’t hesitate to look at John and interject a genuine “thank-you” for his service. Another source of hospitality were folks wearing bright red vests with “VOLUNTEER” boldly imprinted on the back. Many, veterans themselves, were stationed throughout the hospital, reaching out with an offer to assist at even the slightest sign of confusion or uncertainty. With their help, we found our way to Nuclear Medicine in time for our by 8 a.m. appointment.
The receptionist in “Nuclear” was ready for us, shared info on what to expect, and pointed to the area where I should wait as he escorted John down the hall. I took a seat next to a man who looked up and nodded as he uttered light-heartedly, “Kinda like the Army, hurry up and wait.” For the next 45 minutes, in this room surrounded by so many vets, I had to wonder about their individual stories — each, still soldiering, but now through different kinds of battles.
As my thoughts returned to my own vet, I pictured John humping through his cardiac stress test. A flush of worry passed through me. Just then, a red-vested volunteer strolled by with a coffee cart and stopped to offer me a cup. “Cream or sugar?” he asked. “Please!” I answered, sharing a look of gratitude for this unexpected comfort care.
John’s tests went smoothly. No unexpected crises. It was, however, a long day. As we drove from the parking lot, looking for our way back to northbound I-35 and home, I thought about how fortunate we were. My husband had received comprehensive care with competency, respect and kindness every step of the way. And, we were leaving with not a shred of worry about how much it would cost or if we would be able to pay for it. It was medical care expertly designed to address the unique and complex needs of veterans of military service. From this experience, I now understood why the VA Medical System is a vitally important institution that must be continually monitored, defended, and fully funded.
Approximately nine million veterans are enrolled with the Veterans Health Administration, our nation’s largest health care system. Its services are provided in 170 medical centers, 1,231 community based out-patient clinics, and 300 Vet Centers. In recent years, the VA medical system has been criticized for a number of inefficiencies. Significant investments to improve care have been made. Numerous changes in staffing and leadership have led to reduced waiting times and higher quality outcomes.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin was recently interviewed by National Public Radio. He explained why he opposes efforts to privatize the VA medical system. After having experienced the quality of care delivered by the Minneapolis VAMC, I agreed with him that the current system deserves our continued support. He emphasized that we owe our veterans as comprehensive and trouble-free a system as possible, in a setting that is well-prepared to meet their complex medical needs.
After having my eyes opened to what the Minneapolis VAMC looks and feels like, I’m convinced that they are doing health care right. Perhaps we should look at its service delivery system more closely, asking if and how it might be replicated. It serves as a valuable model of a single-payer system that is working well for our nation’s veterans. Perhaps it could work for the rest of us, too. Without question, our veterans deserve the best. I would add, “So do we.”