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Minnesota National Guard
Recovery at the VA Medical Center

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the Minneapolis VA Medical Center The next two issues will focus on specialty units

Sgt Ian Ralston is lying in the spinal cord injury unit at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, recently paralyzed from the neck down from an IED attack in Iraq a month ago His life, and the lives of his mother, father, sister and girlfriend, changed in an instant

Ralston is just one of hundreds who arrive at the VA seeking recovery

Brig General Jerry Lang and Chaplain Kelly Adelsman of the 34th Infantry Division had a firsthand look last week at what the Minneapolis VA Medical Center is doing to help veterans and military personnel who are returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and other deployments

It was an opportunity for a military leader to see how the decisions he and others at the top affect the lives of so many And how the medical staff at the VA are working to aid in their recovery

It was also an opportunity for a chaplain, who will be deployed next spring, to better understand the physical, mental and spiritual repercussions

“We’re a very integral part of a complete healing,” Adelsman said

The Minneapolis VA Medical Center (VAMC) is one of four polytrauma units in the United States

With the exception of organ transplants and delivering babies, the VAMC performs all types of surgeries with expertise in cardio thoracic surgery

It has 3,500 employees and 1,200 volunteers and is extremely self-sufficient

The VAMC also hosts one of the largest research programs in the VA health care system and works closely with the University of Minnesota

According to the VAMC Public Affairs Officer Ralph Heussner, the VA is focusing on suicide prevention, expediting the benefits process, homelessness and mental health

The VAMC has several specialty areas, such as the traumatic brain injury unit, a spinal cord injury unit and a transitional unit The facility has had more open heart surgeries than any other VA in the US And has recently been designated as a regional amputation center

“We see more amputees who are more active than ever,” VAMC Polytrauma Director of Operations Jack Avery said

The staff at the VA are dealing with veterans who are suffering from injuries related to blasts, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic pain, hearing loss, and other mental and physical issues

But one of the most difficult issues for the patients is the mental aspect

“It’s easy to blame a physical action, they can accept that,” Avery said

Dr Mike Armstrong said, “Sixty percent of combat-related TBI (traumatic brain injuries) often suffer beyond what we expect for recovery time”

Armstrong pointed out that many returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may not have a brain injury, but have been exposed to blasts

Those blasts cause headaches, insomnia and memory issues when they return to civilian life

“The fact that we’ve educated families, do you think that has helped?” Lang asked

“Absolutely,” Armstrong said However, while there may not be as many “fires ablaze” there are more “smoldering” problems Fortunately, veterans are seeking help sooner

Another factor is post combat accidents The VA is seeing more veterans coming in due to accidents at home on ATVs, motorcycles, vehicles, etc

“I can’t believe the number of motorcycle accidents,” Lang noted The veterans were used to high-risk situations during deployment and seek that same adrenaline at home

“How do you replace that adrenaline rush?” the general asked

The transitional unit at the VAMC, which was completed within a year, is a continuam of care for patients

“It provides a big spectrum of recovery,” Dr Larisa Kusar said “Prior to this we had limited resources for those who didn’t need the hospital, but needed supervised care”

The majority of those severely injured go home with loved ones The transitional unit helps families learn how to deal with the new needs of that individual

It can take six months to a year to relearn how to live

“Our miracles might be a little more subdued,” Armstrong said “But when you see them on the verge of death and they may never walk or talk again, and they go to using public transportation

“The private sector might discharge you when you can walk We’ll discharge you when you can run”

Lang asked how the VA maintains its expertise as it prepares for the next conflict

Armstrong said staff retention and education allows them to stand ready

“The next war may be totally different We have to be flexible,” Armstrong added

Gen Lang asked of every administrator, doctor, specialist and nurse he met at the VA, “What can we, as leaders, do for you?”

It was obvious by the smile on Sgt Ralston’s face as Lang spent time visiting the Soldier one of the most important thing leaders can do, is listen to the men and women on the front lines

By Dawn Reede
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