Audiologist Dr. Erica Bush is thoughtful and naturally elegant — and then there’s her blunt language. She makes it clear that she grew up in abject poverty and was likely either born deaf in her left ear or lost her hearing prior to age five due to illness and neglect.
Dr. Bush was first diagnosed with hearing loss at age five during a pre-kindergarten hearing screening at her public school. As a little girl in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Bush grew up with Christian parents who believed in the power of prayer.
“My mother said, ‘I’ve prayed for you, and God says you can hear’” Dr. Bush says. Without any family emotional support, no financial support (no health insurance), no audiologists or knowledgeable hearing healthcare workers in this remote area of the Poconos, as well as the neglect in the school system, she received zero help until she was in the 4th grade when public laws were updated.
Often because of the way alphabetical seating was arranged, “I was seated with my good ear to the wall, so I couldn’t hear the teachers well or participate in any social conversations near me on a good day. On days where I was sick with frequent ear infections in my good ear, along with my tinnitus, I couldn’t hear anything.”
“But now, hearing your story, I respect you even more.”
She began excelling academically — working with a very compassionate, skilled hearing itinerant for which she will forever be grateful. But at the same time, “All I wanted was to be was normal,” she says. She never told classmates or any close friends she had hearing problems until late high school.
With a major in Communications Sciences and Disorders and a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Penn State, Dr. Bush then continued on to study Audiology at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, earning her doctorate degree in Audiology.
She completed a one-year residency at VA New York Harbor Health Care System (VANYHHS) and returned with her husband to VANYHHS four years ago.
Dr. Bush started the BAHA (bone-anchored hearing aid implant) program at VANYHHS a little over two years ago, after deciding to receive her own implant at New York University.
“I want my Veterans to know all their options. I want to make sure they are educated and they know if they are a hearing aid candidate, a BAHA or a traditional cochlear implant candidate,” she says. “My implant has changed my life for the better.
“The educational field and healthcare field should be reminded that it is our job to continue to learn and recognize we are not experts at everything. Team work is huge. Education and continuing education is huge. If you don’t know the answer, figure it out or ask someone for help.
“I do still believe in the power of prayer, as God’s strength has led me thus far, and specifically here to help myself and to help others.”
As Dr. Bush interacts with a hearing implant patient, it’s clear that her own experience with hearing loss and hearing devices creates a bond of trust.
“This one is heavier, this one doesn’t give you that whistling feedback,” she explains to patient Michael Fuller, an Army Veteran and accomplished N.Y. State professional in Community Services in Staten Island.
Fuller is straightforward in expressing his appreciation of Dr. Bush. “I always respected you, but now hearing your story, I respect you even more.” he says.
Dr. Bush says, “The message I want to convey to both patients and clinicians is that ‘education is power.’ No matter what you are or your background, everyone needs help. I am here to help, that is my gift to you. Pay it forward. Many people have helped me, and I wish to pay it forward.
“We can’t control ignorance by others, nor can we change the past. We must do the best with the hand we are dealt and move forward. We control our own destiny. We as healthcare workers can make a positive change.”
Read a more detailed version of her story here.
VA’s Million Veteran Program reached an important milestone when an Army Veteran from Montgomery, Alabama, became the 500,000th Veteran to voluntarily enroll in the research database program – making the program the largest genomic database in the world.
“Their participation has the potential to save countless lives, now and for generations to come.”
Participants donate blood from which DNA is extracted. A baseline and periodic follow-up surveys track Veterans’ military experiences, health and lifestyles. Researchers believe the information contained in the database could hold the key to preventing and treating diseases.
“Our Veterans continue to demonstrate their selfless sacrifice, and the nation has yet another reason to owe them a debt of gratitude,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “Many of our Veterans have saved lives on the battlefield and because of their participation in the Million Veteran Program (MVP), their participation has the potential to save countless lives – now and for generations to come.”
As part of the program, participating Veterans grant researchers secure access to their electronic health records and agree to be contacted about participating in future research. Samples and data used are coded to protect participants’ identification and privacy.
Photo by Frank Curran
Research using MVP data is already underway, studying a range of medical issues like mental illness and heart and kidney diseases. The program also has rich data on various health conditions that are common in Veterans. Approximately 62 percent of MVP enrollees report a current or past diagnosis of high blood pressure and about a third report tinnitus. Also, nearly a third or 32 percent of Veterans present with a history or current diagnosis of cancer.
“We believe MVP will accelerate our understanding of disease detection, progression, prevention and treatment by combining this rich clinical, environmental and genomic data,” said Dr. David J. Shulkin, VA Under Secretary for Health.“ VA has a deep history of innovation and research. MVP will allow the nation’s top researchers to perform the most cutting-edge science to treat some of the nation’s most troubling diseases.”
VA’s Million Veteran Program was launched in 2011 and is part of the White House Precision Medicine Initiative.
For more information about MVP, including how to participate, visit http://www.research.va.gov/MVP/
For information about the 52 VA sites currently enrolled in the program, visit www.research.va.gov/MVP/all-clinics.cfm
VA has an exceptionally talented team of outstanding employees. We would like you to meet them, starting with our dedicated staff of doctors.
We will be introducing an eminent doctor in a continuing feature: VA’s Top Doctors.
The first VA doctor we want you to meet played a key role in VA’s response to the tragic event at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Psychologist Dr. Mary Beth Shea took the lead in briefing her team members and explaining their role in family death notifications.
Dr. Shea briefs the Orlando VA team
(Dozens of Orlando VA employees responded to the tragedy and you can read an hour-by-hour account here by Mike Strickler, Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the Orlando VA Medical Center.)
The city was still in shock when VA arrived at a local senior center to provide support and comfort to families of the slain and injured. It would fall upon the VA and city responders to brief the families and make formal death notifications.
While on the way to the center, Dr. Shea put out a call to VA mental health for support. By the time she arrived, more than 100 mental health professionals had called in to help
The next afternoon Dr. Shea saw the urgent need for more mental health providers. She told one nurse, “I know you’re a nurse but you’re now mental health. Go get a priest and join us in notifying families upstairs.”
“I know you’re a nurse but you’re now mental health.”
As the Orlando Mobile Medical Unit began setting up, a mobile Vet Center from Jacksonville pulled in close behind it. Within minutes medical and mental health providers from the Orlando VA Medical Center were on hand, working to organize the staff and give guidance to those just coming in. In a matter of minutes, VA stood ready to support long before the shocked and dazed families began flowing in from the hot and humid Orlando afternoon.
“Thank God for our nurses and other team members”
Dr. Shea remembers the traumatic event: “The Pulse response was a real opportunity for us to use the skills we’ve developed as a team, and it also highlighted changes that we need to make. So many of today’s tragedies are primarily mental health, yet we only had two trained mental health staff on the team.
“I thank God for our nurses and other team members who were able to stand in—and they did wonderfully– but I feel like we have some pretty good marching orders going forward.”
Dr. Shea grew up in Tampa, Florida, and received her PhD at the University of South Carolina. She has been with VA for 28 years, including a tour as medical psychologist at the Columbia, South Carolina, VA Medical Center and ten years at the Orlando VA Medical Center.
She has published 28 articles in professional journals and has made hundreds of presentations to professional and community audiences. She has also been a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer since 1998.
The enthusiastic owner and rider of a 1996 Super Glide Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Dr. Shea has one daughter and two granddaughters.
Dr. Mary Beth Shea recently received the Michael S. Neale Award national award for mental health practitioners.
More of VA’s Response
Over a period of 12 days the Orlando VA Medical Center and the Veteran Health Administration’s Vet Center program supported more than 5,000 people, many of whom are Veterans, in locations that spanned central Florida.
The support came in the form of deployed medical and mental health assets, family death notifications, grief and survivor counseling, coping skills, media engagement, mass communication, late-night phone calls, office visits, support groups, hugs, hands, food, water, tissues and many, many tears.
Units deployed to help the families
Among its Emergency Management assets, the Orlando VAMC employs a mobile medical unit and a mobile command post, both 38-foot RV-style vehicles that deploy to augment community resources in situations where medical facilities are not readily available.
The decision was made to provide psychological first aid at the points of gravity where mental health services would be most needed. The Orlando VAMC moved out quickly in that role by employing the medical center “Director’s 50,” known among employees as simply “The 50.”
The group consists of VA volunteers from most career fields who play an instrumental role in the speedy deployment of emergency management persons, services and assets.
Taking a step toward a more active and healthy life, more than 19,560 VA employees and 8,160 Veterans participated in the recent 2016 annual VA2K Walk & Roll event.
The event also benefited homeless Veterans as participants made voluntary donations in the form of items such as clothing, toiletries, food and water that had an estimated value of more than $384,800, an increase of more than $56,750 from 2015.
“We were very excited to see the amount of participation by employees and our Veterans,” said Sandra Schmunk, program manager for the Veterans Health Administration’s Employee Health & Well-Being group, which sponsors the VA2K.
“A chance…to come together to focus on health and helping homeless Veterans.”
Since 2011, the VA2K has generated the donation of items with an estimated value of more than $1.73 million to help homeless Veterans.
According to Schmunk, not only did the value of the donations increase over the previous year, but so did the number of VA employees and Veterans participating.
“It’s fantastic to see this event grow each year,” She said. “This is a chance for VA employees, Veterans and the local community to come together to focus on health and helping homeless Veterans.”
According to Schmunk, employees from across VA, including VA Central Office, VHA, Veterans Benefit Administration and the National Cemetery Administration participated in the event.
She also noted that walking or rolling in a wheel chair are fantastic ways to stay active and a positive method of managing everyday stress.
The annual event is held in conjunction with National Employee Health Day and this year was held at more than 160 VA locations nationwide.
“Hi. I’m Chaplain John. Would you like to talk?” Most patients say “Sure,” says Chaplain-Resident Schultz describing the practice to meet with patients shortly after they are admitted to VA’s St. Albans campus, a residential facility.
While Schultz is Catholic, Harbor’s Chaplaincy Clinical Education Program is interdenominational, including full-time, residents, mental health chaplain fellows and intern chaplains, ; chaplains meet with patients of all faiths unless a patient specifically asks to talk with someone of a specific faith. VA chaplains, he says, are part of an interdisciplinary team that may include a psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers, nurses, physicians, physical therapist, dietitian and others, who meet regularly to coordinate patients’ care. Like other clinicians on the team, chaplains co-contribute to patient outcomes.
The path from Moral Injury to moral repair is long and requires courage.
Chaplains explore a patient’s spiritual well-being and provide spiritual comfort and care in the moment and as part of a longer term care plan with other clinicians. The unique role of the chaplain is to assist patients with connecting their spiritual resources with their spiritual/religious needs. One area a Veteran may be struggling with is moral injury.
Moral injury can come about when a Veteran experiences “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.” For instance, a soldier may have killed an enemy combatant in battle.
“I’ve never told anyone this.”
The way Chaplain Schultz describes “moral” is a matter of ought. A chaplain may be able to help a Veteran address the thoughts they may be asking themselves about what they did in combat that may conflict with what they now think they ought to have done.
These experiences, Chaplain Schultz says are often kept inside and compartmentalized. “‘I’ve never told anyone this’ are words chaplains and other clinicians may hear. Because these thoughts remain pushed away and avoided,” says Chaplain Schultz. “Veterans keep replaying past incidents and may have nightmares or sleepless nights, and can experience many other destructive symptoms including withdrawal, addiction issues, self-sabatoging, self-harming and self-condemnation. These patients can view drugs and alcohol as the only escape. Over time, though, these attempts at coping break down.”
“Memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways, disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.,” says Chaplain Schultz, referring to a quote from Elie Weisel, Holocaust Survivor and teacher of tolerance and Nobel Laureate, who recently passed.
Chaplain John Schultz
Chaplain Schultz also talks about the need for all humans to speak about and process their feelings. He notes a comparable in the Book of Lamentations in the Bible which details individual laments of despair that often end in renewed faith and hope after expression.
Both chaplains and psychologists are convinced that bringing the issues into the open and processing and reflecting on them with guidance from supportive clinicians in a thoughtful plan of care is the best way to treat moral injury.
Many Veterans are Seeking Forgiveness
Chaplains first approach Veterans by engaging in conversation and at times asking them to complete a brief spiritual self-assessment that asks straightforward questions about levels of guilt, shame, anger, anxiety and general spiritual well-being. Spirituality refers to a quest for meaning and purpose and connection. While for many God is part of that context, spirituality applies to believers and atheists alike.
With moral injury where the Veteran blames himself /herself, shame and guilt can be overwhelming. “Many Veterans are seeking forgiveness. From whom? From a moral authority. For each person this moral authority can be different. For some it is God, for some it is peers and family – ultimately each can struggle with forgiving themselves.
“A chaplain can model this forgiveness for a patient, perhaps helping them experience God’s forgiveness. Most important is connection – the Veteran is not alone. I may tell a Veteran, ‘I forgive you. I am as guilty as you. I am a citizen of this nation which sent you into combat. We are all complicit.’”
The path from moral injury to moral repair is long and requires courage. For these Veterans the return home from the battlefield is only the first step. More work is needed for recovery but in that work there are others who care, there is hope and there is recovery and renewal.
Women Veterans! VA has a new, online, one-to-one chat just for you.
The new service enables women Veterans to go online and anonymously chat via real-time text with a trained representative. All the representatives at the Women Veterans Call Center are women, and many are Veterans themselves.
The new feature provides women Veterans with another avenue to ask general questions about benefits, eligibility and services specifically for women Veterans.
Questions? We have the answers
Do you know your Veteran status? Do you have a Veteran ID card? Should you receive any benefits from VA, like the GI Bill? Do you know what health care benefits you have earned? If you do not know the answer to even one of these questions, VA has established the Women Veterans Call Center (WVCC) just for you.
The WVCC staff is trained to provide women Veterans, their families, and caregivers about VA services and resources. We are ready to respond to your concerns. The call is free, and you can call as often as you like until you have the answers to your questions.
The Call Center is available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET, and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. ET.
What will happen when I enter chat? You will be connected to a trained VA woman staff member.
New chat feature
WVCC chat is available by visiting the Women Veterans Health Care web page at www.womenshealth.va.gov and clicking the “Chat with the Women Veterans Call Center” icon. The chat function is anonymous — please do not use personally identifiable information such as social security numbers. WVCC Chat is available Monday through Friday 8 AM – 10 PM ET, and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. ET.
She’s your guide to VA
All the representatives at the Women Veterans Call Center are women, and many are Veterans themselves. In addition to linking women Veterans to information, the Women Veterans Call Center makes direct referrals to Women Veteran Program Managers (WVPM) located at every VA medical center. The Women Veteran Program Manager helps women Veterans coordinate services.
What will happen when I call the WVCC?
- You will be connected to a trained VA woman staff member.
- Call center staff will conduct a brief screening to assess your needs.
- Women Veterans will be provided personalized information regarding health care services, VA benefits and services, and a package of information will be sent to their home.
- You can call for yourself or for a women Veteran you know.
- The call is free and confidential.
- Contact information will be requested so staff may follow-up.
Over 345,000 women Veterans served
VA has found that women Veterans underutilize VA care, largely due to a lack of knowledge about VA benefits and available services and their eligibility for them. In response, the Call Center contacts women Veterans to let them know about the services they have earned.
Since April 2013, the WVCC has reached out to over 310,000 women Veterans and has received calls from over 35,000 women Veterans. The WVCC receives, on average, 80 calls per day and makes on average, 1,000 calls per day.
In addition to receiving calls, WVCC reaches out to women Veterans to let them know about the services they have earned, and staff can help connect them to benefits they deserve.
What will happen when I receive a call?
- A trained WVCC staff member will identify themselves as working for the VA and ask if it is a good time to talk.
- She will then ask if you are aware of your eligibility for benefits.
- Women Veterans will be provided with information regarding health care services, VA benefits and services available, and a package of information will be sent to their home.
- Contact information will be requested so staff may follow-up.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Who can use the Women Veterans Call Center?
Any women Veteran or person that has questions about services and benefits available to women Veterans in the VA.
2. Can I call the Women Veterans Call Center if I am not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care?
Yes, any women Veteran can use the Women Veterans Call Center, even if you are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA health care.
3. How do I know when I should call the Women Veterans Call Center?
You should call the Women Veterans Call Center if you have any questions about VA services or health care available to women Veterans. You may also call the Women Veterans Call Center if you have concerns about your current VA health care services.
4. How would I know if I am considered a Veteran?
You may be considered a Veteran If you served on active duty in the armed forces of the United States and was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable. You do not need to have wartime or combat experience to be considered a Veteran.
5. How do I use the Women Veterans Call Center service?
Simply call 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636) to be connected with a Women Veterans Call Center representative. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. ET and Saturday, 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET.
6. How do I use the Women Veterans Call Center chat feature?
Women Veterans can access WVCC chat through the Women Veterans Health Care website (www.womenshealth.va.gov). The Women Veterans Call Center chat tab is located on the right hand side of the website.
7. Is there a cost to call the Women Veterans Call Center?
No. The telephone number is a free service.
8. Who answers my call to the Women Veterans Call Center?
VA contact representatives are women, and some representatives are Veterans. All representatives are trained to provide information as it relates to services and benefits available to women Veterans.
9. Can I contact the Women Veterans Call Center if I am already receiving care in the VA?
Yes. If you prefer, the Women Veterans Call Center representative can help coordinate care with your regular health care providers by connecting you with the Women Veteran Program Manager at the VA Medical Center closest to you.
10. What happens when I call the Women Veterans Call Center?
When you call the Women Veterans Call Center, you will receive direct assistance from a trained VA contact representative. Representatives are here to assist you with your questions, concerns and provide you with resources. The contact representatives will work with you to provide you with the best course of action. To better serve you, they may ask for information such as your name, telephone number and your address. Contact representatives can provide direct referrals for VA services and help fast-track appointments with a Women Veterans Program Manager.
Hundreds of senior soldiers are in Detroit this week for the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
Carmen Schiavoni, 92, is there and has been going to the games since 2003. Schiavoni was a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress running missions over Germany during WWII. Read his story.
Carmen Schiavoni, 92, ready to take on any of the “kids” at the game
Also participating is super motivated Marine Veteran John Martinez, 2014 recipient of the George Gangi Inspiration Award – the top award at the Golden Age Games. He is there with the team from Fresno, Calif.
Since 1990, the Golden Age Games has chosen one participant each year as the “Most Inspirational” person to compete. That Veteran exhibits excellent qualities of fitness, sportsmanship and competitive skill. In 1995, the award was renamed to honor the late George Gangi, a participant at the Games in Dallas that year.
The games, now in the 30th year, offer sports and recreational competitive events for Veterans 55 years of age and older. It is the largest sports and recreation competition for this age group of military Veterans in the world and continue to serve as a showcase for the rehabilitation value that wellness and fitness provide in the lives of older Americans.
The games are the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States.
The National Veterans Golden Age Games is the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States, and the only national multi-event sports and recreational seniors’ competition program designed to improve the quality of life for all older Veterans, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The VA challenges and encourages senior Veterans to be proactive in embracing a healthier lifestyle.
“The games help our Veterans maintain active and healthy lifestyles, and provide them the unique camaraderie of being surrounded by fellow Veterans who share common bonds of service,” said Carla Carmichael, director, National Veterans Golden Age Games. “Through sports and exercise programs and healthy living initiatives, VA continues a long history of providing Veterans with opportunities to stay active, healthy and involved.”
Events at the games include:
• Air Rifle
• Table Tennis
• Track and Field
The Veterans Golden Age Games have become a model for other senior sports events.
A “fountain of youth” for America’s rapidly aging Veteran population, the games provide a multi-event sports and therapeutic recreation program for eligible Veterans receiving care at any VA medical facility. They reflect VA’s mission – to provide quality programs and health care for older Veteran population.
Over the years, competitive events at the Golden Age Games have been adapted to meet specific needs of the participants. There are separate age groups and gender divisions and because many Veterans also face medical challenges, events were added for those who use wheelchairs and those who have visual impairments.
To accommodate the varying degrees of physical conditioning, motor and cognitive skills of the participants, basic competition rules were adapted. The modification of rules and use of adaptive equipment in many events allow non-ambulatory and visually impaired Veterans to participate.
This has made the National Veterans Golden Age Games a truly adaptive therapeutic sports competition that has become a model for other local, state and national senior sports events.
And one Veteran describes it, “It’s a total wellness program. You get physical exercise, mental exercise and I think spiritual in the sense of the camaraderie and fellowship with your teammates. I think it keeps a lot guys out of the hospital.”
Like many other young men in the late 1960s, Roberto Gonzalez answered when Uncle Sam called. He was drafted by the Army for service in June of 1969, a week after finishing school. Gonzalez, from South Texas, found himself going to Army basic training instead of working on the family ranch and going to summer graduation parties.
Gonzalez was a member of the 25th Infantry, and on one mission, was selected to be on point during a patrol. What he didn’t know was they were walking into an ambush of North Vietnamese soldiers lying in wait. They sprung up from a trench, firing on the 14-man squad. With Gonzalez on point, he took the brunt of fire, being hit three times: through both lungs, a bullet hitting and shattering his leg below the knee, and the last striking his abdomen, fragmenting and hitting his spine, creating the shrapnel that led to his paralysis.
He described his wounds with much less bravado and even a little sense of humor. “I had three shots with an AK-47 and had a thousand little ones,” Gonzalez said. “I had holes all over my body, but I made it,” he said, grinning while describing the horrendous attack.
The fighting was so intense, they transported him a few miles away to a landing zone (LZ) to be medevac’d. Although the chopper was finally cleared to land, Gonzalez wasn’t in the clear yet. “Every time the chopper lifted off, my blood pressure dropped rapidly,” Gonzalez explained. He said they did this numerous times before they flew him out of the hot zone.
Out of his original 14-man squad, Gonzalez was one of only three that had survived. The fellow soldiers he left behind left an imprint on his memory, even 45 years after he returned home, making his face sullen as he described the experience. “I saw a lot of bad things over there,” he murmured. “I saw a lot of dead people.”
One of the first patients at Audie Murphy Hospital
Gonzalez finally came back to the U.S. in 1970, spending the remainder of the year rehabilitating until he could be safely moved. Along the way, he made stops at hospitals in Saigon and Japan, befpre ending up in Memphis, Tenn. at a specialized VA hospital for paraplegics. He rehabilitated for 18 months until he finally got back to Premont, Tex.
“I had holes all over my body, but I made it.”
He needed continuous care, and the only availability was a hospital in Houston and returns to Memphis for his specialty care. All of that changed when Gonzalez could be seen at the newly-established Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital that was dedicated in November 1973. The new hospital was more convenient for him and he became one of its very first patients.
Gonzalez cuts the ribbon to the new elevated walkway connecting the Audie Murphy hospital with the UT Health Science Center in 1980. He was one of the first patients at hospital after it was dedicated in November of 1973. (Photo courtesy of San Antonio Express News)
It’s one of the things that led to former hospital director, Jose’ Coronado to nominate Gonzalez and his new wife, Rosario, to cut the ribbon on the new walking bridge between the Veterans hospital and the University of Texas Health Research Center in 1980.
Ranch in the family since 1800s
Besides being hospitalized in 1975 for kidney issues, Rosario said Gonzalez was rather healthy, working the 20,000 acre ranch near Premont that has been in the family since the late 1800’s.
When Gonzalez fell ill again in 2015, they transported him to a hospital in Corpus Christi, but were delighted the stay was temporary, and that they would be returning to Audie Murphy. “There are some really good nurses in this ward,” Rosario said of the spinal cord unit.
Gonzalez added that he wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. Rosario thinks the specialized training the spinal cord staff receives makes the difference.
In the fall of 2015, Roberto Gonzalez’s large family came from near and far to celebrate his birthday. (Photo by Steve Goetsch)
In the fall of 2015, after a couple months at Audie, the Gonzalez family held a special birthday party for Gonzalez and his younger brother George, who shares the same birthday. They brought enough food and drink to supply a small army because they included the staff and inpatients on the ward they consider part of their family. “We’ve met so many great families from guys that have been hurt with spinal cord injuries,” Rosario said.
Rosario herself was a fixture on the ward, staying nearby at the South Texas VA Fisher House by the campus. His mother, Elodia, who might have been responsible for her son’s resiliency, came up frequently, despite being three hours from the hospital. “His mom is 92 years old,” Rosario exclaimed. “She is a feisty lady, and she is something else.”
Does resilience come with spending four decades in a wheelchair, refusing to give up, or is it bolstered by the 10 supportive siblings that help with the ranch and who drove from all over south Texas in inclement weather to celebrate their brothers’ birthdays? Whatever the case may be, one of the things that kept Gonzalez going were his horses.
Wanted to be on the ranch…with his horses
Despite becoming fixtures at the hospital, and lauding the care they received there, there was only one place Gonzalez wanted to be…back on the ranch, with his horses.
His face lit up when he talked about them. From traveling through several states to show and sell racehorses, to the short-legged cows he raised and attempted to describe to a naïve city slicker. He missed his ranch and getting into his “big truck” every morning and doing what he did for decades, with his father and grandfather by his side.
The Gonzalez family was holding down the ranch, awaiting his return. “They keep us informed,” Rosario said, speaking of the many nieces and nephews that stepped up in Gonzalez’s absence.
This most recent visit to Audie was taking a toll on Gonzalez. He was tired. It was a different Gonzalez than Rosario was used to. “He was very independent, it’s just recently that his body has worn down,” Rosario said. “He used to transfer on his own; he just started needing help.”
Gonzalez experienced some complications and began losing his battle. He had liver problems, and his kidneys began to shut down. The time came when the staff began to prepare the family. If Gonzalez couldn’t get to the ranch, the Gonzalez family wanted to bring the ranch to him. There were two horses that were favorites of Gonzalez: Sugar and Ringo, but bringing them into a hospital would take some planning.
Brought his bed out to the parking lot
Dr. Seth Chandler, chief of Audie’s Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) unit, with Nurse Manager Louis Nwojo and their team, consulted with the family and worked out the logistics. With safety being paramount, the decision to facilitate the visit was granted. Nwojo said the team did a safety check of all medical devices, and brought the bed out to the parking lot and the two waiting equine friends to say goodbye.
Surrounded by Rosario and his family, the horses gently greeted Gonzalez in a quiet, somber gathering. He passed away May 23, just two days later. Gonzalez leaves quite a legacy; Vietnam Veteran, Silver and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, faithful husband of 40 years, the only Texas paraplegic horse trainer, Veteran of the Month and patriarch of one of the biggest, most supportive families you could ever meet…Roberto Gonzalez was not a casualty of war.
Rest in peace, Roberto, and thank you for your service.
(Author’s note: This story is based on interviews conducted with Roberto in the fall of 2015.)
Wheelchair Games are about Living Healthy Lives
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are presented each year by VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) with additional support from numerous corporate and community sponsors.
The Salt Lake City Health Care System and PVA are hosting the 36th edition of the games in and around Salt Lake City June 27-July 2.
The games are a rehabilitation and wheelchair sports program empowering Veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation.
Each summer, Veterans from across the United States and a team from Great Britain travel to a new community hosting the games. During the week, Veterans compete in 18 wheelchair sports events while providing encouragement and mentoring for new Veterans. Veterans at the games educate newly disabled Veterans on what is possible and those witnessing the events realize that limitations are only state of mind.
Since 1985, PVA and VA have joined forces to work collaboratively to organize and execute the Games, enabling the strengths of both organizations to come together to make them one of the largest annual wheelchair sports programs and truly a world class event.
This is not just a one-week experience. VA Rehabilitation Programs and Paralyzed Veterans of America chapters across the country work to empower Veterans to be more active and healthy in their daily lives by getting them involved in sports and recreation programs highlighting fitness, social networking, and community involvement.
Sports and recreation reinforce critical values necessary for health while combating the risk of isolation, depression, and other factors associated with health. That is what the Games are about.
There are dozens of remarkable stories about the Veterans participating. Here is just one.
Family and Faith Helped Him Survive
by Jill Atwood
Public Affairs Officer
SLC VA Medical Center
Fifty years ago the United States was at war in Vietnam. In 1966 American Forces stationed in Vietnam reached 389,000 by the end of the year. More than 6,000 American troops were killed and 30,000 wounded in that year alone. On Jan. 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive kicked off one of the largest military campaigns of the war that launched a wave of surprise attacks across the country striking more than 100 towns and cities.
Mike Johnson joined the Marine Corps at the height of the Vietnam War. On Jan. 30, 1968, while out on patrol, one of the men in his unit triggered a booby trap. Mike lost both of his legs in that explosion and spent months in the hospital recovering. He earned two purple hearts and a bronze star.
His game plan: never quit.
Family and faith helped him survive his life-changing injuries. Mike is a father of eight. “I have a strong belief system. I think this is all temporary.” Mike stayed active and took up wheelchair basketball and track and field. His drive to be the best in any adaptive sport he tried eventually earned him an invitation to the 1976 Paralympic Games in Toronto. He took home four medals: a gold in table tennis and lawn bowling, a silver in the 100-meter dash, and a bronze in the javelin.
“I like to compete. I don’t like losing.”
This will be his 4th Wheelchair Games. “I still like it, I still like to compete and I am a terrible loser. I don’t like losing.” Today, while training is still a huge part of Mike’s life, his passion lies with teaching. He has been a coach and school teacher for 34 years.
His game plan: never quit. Events he will compete in at the Salt Lake City Games: hand-cycling, slalom, air rifle, table tennis and 9-ball.