Giving Thanks … with Empathy and Hope

Man and woman talking

Patricia (PJ) Johnson and Army Veteran Teddy Rosario

Patricia Johnson is helping to provide a few friends with a Thanksgiving dinner. About 110 of them, actually, all Veterans for whom she says, “We can’t do enough.”

The annual dinner at the NY Harbor Health Care System Mental Health Clinic is scheduled the day before Thanksgiving. As Johnson, known as “PJ” to her many friends, puts it, “We are thankful for the many freedoms these Veterans have given us. When I was in college, I could go dancing but these guys were in foxholes. I am just so thankful I can now do something for them.”

A lot of Veterans who will be at the Thanksgiving dinner are also very thankful for PJ. Here’s why.

When asked what skills are most useful in the Manhattan Psychosocial Clubhouse, Patricia Johnson responds by saying “empathy and hope.”

Johnson, who coordinates the activities for the Clubhouse, is noted for her upbeat, poetic and bohemian artistic spirit. She is proud to have worked at VA for a number of years and is happy to have found her niche in coordinating the activities of the Clubhouse since the beginning of the program in 1993.

A few years ago, Johnson was run over by a car while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. A broken pelvis and other serious injuries required nine months of rehabilitation in a nursing home. The experience strengthened her awareness of the importance of empathy and hope in recovery from physical and emotional trauma.

She welcomes all Veterans into the Clubhouse and is especially sensitive to those who may be struggling to just get through the day. Throughout her recovery, she would receive “visits” in the form of weekly phone calls from Veterans at the Clubhouse, encouraging her to recover and come back quickly.

“I came back with Access-a-Ride and a walker,” she says. Today, thanks to physical therapy and a very positive attitude, PJ literally does a hop, skip and jump to demonstrate her full recovery.

“PJ is definitely the Clubhouse.”

“Knowing someone was depending on me was the big impetus to get well.” She says she never forgets how powerful the message of empathy and hope from others can be when you are not feeling well and barely getting by.

Johnson’s devotion to her work with Veterans and their devotion to her is unmistakable and very moving. “Treat Veterans like you would want your family to be treated and then we can’t go wrong” is how she expresses her core values relating to interactions with Veterans, whether it’s giving Veterans the chance to express themselves by teaching them the art of wood burning, listening to them vent frustrations, or just kidding around and encouraging laughter.

Teddy Rosario, an Army Veteran who has known PJ since 1987 when the Clubhouse opened, says, “PJ is definitely the Clubhouse. Without her, we would have no mother.”

The New York Harbor Manhattan Clubhouse is a mental health recovery oriented space in the Mental Health Outpatient Clinic that invites Veterans to socialize, learn new skills and connect with other Veterans. The Clubhouse provides activities that promote mental health recovery and transition back to the community in an environment that respects the unique richness of the Veterans experiences.

Veterans are offered an opportunity to take part in peer support services, structured activities and a safe place to socialize. The Clubhouse partners with Volunteer Services to provide opportunities for community organizations and services wanting to show their appreciation to our Veterans by hosting music performances, holiday luncheons and many other activities meaningful to our Veterans.

This year, Johnson’s commitment to Veterans and her remarkable devotion to supporting their feelings of wellbeing were formally acknowledged when VA New York Harbor Healthcare System Director Martina Parauda recognized her as a 2014 recipient of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “Hands and Heart Award.”

“You made the change because you were ready.”

The award recognizes a VA employee at each medical facility whose characteristics best exemplify the provision of emotional support, help and guidance to patients during the past year.

Sister James, a Cabrini Sisters nun, agrees with the recognition. “PJ was very welcoming to me and supportive and open to my suggestions. She shows by her own actions how to be supportive. She is very compassionate and always has the time.”

Many Veterans in the New York City area are also very thankful for Sister James. She has volunteered for more than five years assisting in many kinds of demanding activities such as working with VA staff to host holiday meals for dozens of Veterans.

“It has been wonderful working at the Clubhouse. I enjoy working with the Veterans and with the other volunteers. I thought I was helping them, but they’ve given more to me. They are wonderful, humble, loving people. My heart goes out to the men and women Veterans,” says Sister James, who is now recovering from an illness.

Reflecting on the award Johnson says “It’s like the Stanley Cup. I have it for a year and then have to give it back.”

But her greatest moments of satisfaction are ongoing. “Patients tell me the difference I’ve made in their lives. They come back saying, ‘I’m clean ten years because of you,’ or, ‘I got my life together because of you.’ I tell them you made the change because you were ready.”

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Brain Bank to Help in Treatment of PTSD

Close up portrait of Dr. Matthew Friedman

Dr. Matthew Friedman

There are currently more than 50 brain banks in the United States. The focus of these brain tissue repositories is on investigating alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and a variety of neurological disorders. Yet there has never been a PTSD brain bank — until now.

With recently appropriated funding from Congress, the National Center for PTSD is leading a research consortium developing a national PTSD brain bank. This will be the first brain tissue repository dedicated to researching the physical impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue, thereby advancing the scientific knowledge of PTSD, particularly PTSD biomarkers. Dr. Matthew Friedman, Senior Advisor to the Center and its former Executive Director, is directing the consortium. Plans are for the brain bank to become operational by early 2015.

According to Friedman, “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank would be very grateful to accept tissue donations from Veterans who wish to donate their brains for scientific study after they die. We will establish a website where potential donors can make their wishes known. Brain bank staff will contact them and initiate in-depth discussions about donating tissue to the brain bank.”

Friedman expects the website will be launched within a month or two.

Since 2003, leading academic and research institutions have collaborated in an effort, led by Friedman and Dr. Robert Ursano, Chair of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS), to establish a national PTSD brain bank. But various impediments, including lack of reliable funding, held up the project for a decade.

“We have wanted to do this for a long time, but only now have we received the funding we needed,” Friedman explained. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a steadfast supporter of the Center’s mission to improve the lives of Veterans living with PTSD, spearheaded the successful effort to secure Congressional funding for the brain bank last year. Because of the pivotal roles played by Leahy and Friedman, the brain bank’s official name is “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank.”

Sites in Vermont, Boston, Maryland and Connecticut

Like the National Center for PTSD, the brain bank is organized as a consortium with sites across the United States. Friedman directs the initiative from the Center’s Executive Division in White River Junction, Vermont. The primary site for receiving brain tissue is the VA Medical Center in Boston in conjunction with the National Center’s Boston-based Behavioral Science Division. The secondary receiving site is at the VA Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The USUHS in Bethesda, Maryland serves as the primary assessment site while the National Center’s Clinical Neurosciences Division in West Haven, Connecticut is the primary research site.

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank will be a national resource to support VA and other academic researchers. As Friedman and co-author Dr. William W. Harris foretold in “Toward a National PTSD Brain Bank” (Winter 2004 special issue of Psychiatry , edited by Ursano), “It is expected that applicants who wish to utilize tissue housed in the brain bank would submit their proposals for peer review by a scientific committee convened for this purpose. Prioritization of submitted proposals would be conducted along time-tested peer review procedures.”

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank is a major advancement in the fight against PTSD.

“Although we have learned a great deal about abnormalities in brain structure and function from brain imaging research, there is no substitute for looking at the neurons themselves,” said Friedman. “Understanding the cellular and circuit contributions to abnormal brain activity in PTSD is critical in the search for potential biomarkers of susceptibility, illness and treatment response and for developing new treatments targeting the conditions at the cellular level. The National PTSD Brain Bank’s findings should help pave the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of individuals with PTSD.”

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Quit Smoking for Your Health and Breathe Easier

Male Veteran on a beach inhailing the fresh air.

If you smoke, this year breathe easier. Make a plan to quit for your health.

November 20th is the Great American Smokeout. If you smoke, this year breathe easier. Make a plan to quit for your health and to quit for good! The benefits of quitting smoking are immediate and last a lifetime.

Here are some helpful tips and encouragement to help you kick your habit from Dr. Timothy P. Carmody, a clinical psychologist and smoking cessation specialist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and University of California San Francisco. For the past several decades, Carmody has been helping Veterans quit smoking and stay quit.

You Can Do It!

As the old adage goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” For many Veterans, the idea of quitting smoking is overwhelming and mustering up the confidence to quit can be hard. It is often difficult to picture yourself successfully quitting, imagining a life without cigarettes, or dealing with cravings or other effects such as increased appetite and anxiety.

Be confident. You can quit and keep your confidence through every stage of the quit process.

Find Your Motivation and Support

Veterans quit for many different reasons – a spouse or partner, parents, friends or health. Many want to set a good example for children or grandchildren. Find your own motivation for quitting and lean on it through the quit process. Your motivation may also lend you support, such as family who can cheer you on or help lift you up. If you don’t have family or friends who can offer support, lean on your community, learn from former smokers or join a VA support group.

You May Relapse (and That’s OK)!

Throughout your journey to quit smoking, you may experience setbacks. In fact, most Veterans who successfully quit have relapsed at one point or another in the past. Your ultimate success in quitting will be built on the lessons learned from these setbacks. Do not get discouraged or feel like you have failed.

The only failure is to stop trying.

Get Complete Care

Veterans who smoke may also be in treatment for other health conditions such as mental health or substance use disorders. When seeking treatment for other health conditions, consider quitting smoking as part of your overall treatment or recovery.

Make a Quit Plan: VA Can Help!

Call 1-855-QUIT-VET to get started on your quit plan. Combine smoking cessation medication with counseling for the best chance of quitting. Talk with your health care provider about getting a prescription or recommendation for nicotine replacement therapy such as gum, patch, lozenge and other medications. VA offers counseling and several types of support:

  • One-on-one counseling by your primary health provider or a smoking cessation specialist.
  • Smoking cessation groups to help you provide and gain support from other Veterans navigating the quit process.
  • 1-855-QUIT-VET: VA’s smoking quitline that offers phone counseling in English or Spanish.
  • Text messaging support through SmokefreeVET and SmokefreeEspanol. Text the word VET to 47848 sign up.

Remember, it’s never too late to quit! Learn more about available smoking cessation resources.

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Just Saying No to Pain Meds

Image of a male doctor taking the pulse of a female patient.

Dr. Robert Friedman uses Chinese pulse diagnosis to determine deficiencies or excesses in a patient’s energy in order to guide acupuncture treatment. The technique is well over 2,000 years old.

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., once made the following observation: “Less is more and usually more effective.”

Increasingly, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appears to be taking the same view when it comes to dispensing pain medications. At the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, for example, a little less than three percent of the total patient population is on chronic opioid therapy. That’s five percent below the national percentage for patients receiving such drugs.

An opioid is a drug such as morphine or oxycodone. They ease pain, but they can also cause physical dependency.

The Right Reason

“Opioids have been around for 3,000 years,” said Dr. Robert Friedman, head of the medical center’s Pain Management Team. “They’ve been around that long for a reason. They work. But it’s important that we find the right dose, for the right patient, for the right reason. And that’s what our Pain Management Team here in Charleston does.

“We spend a lot of time learning about the patient,” he continued. “Because the fact is, there are a lot of Veterans who’ve been on opioid therapy for a long time who would do just as well, if not better, without opioids — or on a reduced dosage.”

During the last five years, Charleston’s Pain Management Team has helped more than 400 Veterans ease off their pain medications. “A big part of our success,” Friedman observed, “is getting patients involved in their own care, educating them about pain management and supporting them as they try alternative methods for dealing with chronic pain.

“There’s nothing magical about what we’re doing,” he added. “All we’re doing is taking the time to talk with our patients and learn about them.”

Twinkies and Milkshakes

The pain specialist said his team takes a holistic approach to treating each patient.

“Pain changes your brain,” he observed. “It captures territory associated with mood, emotional regulation and problem-solving. So we don’t just ask the patient how much pain they’re in. “We also ask them things like: ‘How are you sleeping? How is your mood? What is the quality of your life? How are you getting along with people around you? How much are you exercising? What are you eating?

‘What are you eating?’ That’s right. Diet and pain are interconnected. “Let’s face it,” Friedman said. “You’re not going to get rid of your pain by eating Twinkies and drinking milkshakes. You are what you eat.”

An Army Veteran, Friedman said he attacks his patients’ pain the same way he would attack an enemy on the battlefield with a team of highly trained professionals.

“We use an interdisciplinary team approach to pain management,” he explained. “This team includes the Veteran, doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and mental health professionals, all working together. We establish a personalized health plan with each Veteran to minimize their use of chronic opioids, reduce their pain levels through alternative methods and improve their quality of life.”

Plan B

So if you’re in chronic pain and they’re easing you off opioids, what’s Plan B?  (It better be good.)

Friedman said his team’s holistic approach to pain management involves various complimentary treatments and alternative therapies. “We use multiple tactics to take back your brain from the pain,” he said. “If we can, we prefer to use things like mindfulness meditation, yoga, herbals, fish oil, aromatherapy and acupuncture for Veteran patients living with chronic pain.”

“When Dr. Friedman puts those four needles in the top of my head, all the pain from my waist down is totally non-existent,” said 51-year-old Navy Veteran Steve Pulliam. “I can walk with no pain.  It all goes away. It’s amazing.”

Pulliam had been under the care of Friedman’s Pain Management Team due to a crushing injury to his right foot and an impact injury to his left knee — both sustained in separate incidents during his time in the Navy. Then came the cancer diagnosis in August 2013.

“They told me I had a large mass on my pancreas,” Pulliam said. “We tried some chemotherapy to shrink it, but it ended up spreading anyway. So we opted to discontinue chemo so I could have some quality of life with the time I have left. They tell me I have anywhere from six to 18 months.”

 You’re not feeling the pain, so you’re not thinking about it. It puts you square in the middle of calmness. 
— Steve Pulliam, pain patient at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Charleston, S.C.

The Sound of the Ocean

Pulliam said he looks forward to his weekly visits to the Charleston VA’s Pain Management Team.

“These treatments they’re giving me are making a huge difference in the quality of my life that’s not attainable by any other means,” he said. “It gives you a sense of well-being and eases your mental and physical tensions.  It’s amazing when they put the needles in … the gastrointestinal pain goes away, the orthopedic pain goes away.”

But acupuncture is just one of many tools in the Pain Team’s toolbox.

“They use body oils … lavender and rosemary,” Pulliam said. “They put that on your stomach. After a few minutes you can actually taste it. After a few more minutes, you start to feel the effects. The lavender calms the pain in your gut and the rosemary helps with your overall calmness. They also have soft music playing in the background, or something relaxing like the sound of rain falling, or the sound of the ocean.

“I know it all sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo,” he added. “But it works.  I’m proof of that.”

Then there’s the heat lamp.

“They use an infrared lamp to heat up certain parts of my thoracic area,” said the Navy Veteran. “The heat penetrates your skin and reaches the organs inside, warming them up. So you’ve got the heat, the needles and the oils, all working together. You feel like you’re on vacation in the islands, lying on the beach, soaking in the sun. You’re not feeling the pain, so you’re not thinking about it. It puts you square in the middle of calmness. All your stress, all your worries go away. You’re free.”

But how long does the vacation in the islands last? The pain stays away for about a day-and-a-half, on average, Pulliam reported.

“If you can take away the hurt for just a little while, it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “It gives you more strength, more power more endurance to keep going. It resets your hope meter.”

To learn more about pain management at the VA, visit

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Thousands Sign Up for Dental Insurance

Child hugging dad and smiling.

VA creating partnerships with the private sector for high-quality care.

More than 64,000 eligible Veterans and Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) beneficiaries have taken advantage of the discounted dental insurance plans offered through the VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP).

The program is a partnership between VA, Delta Dental and MetLife.

VADIP, which launched Nov. 15, 2013, is a three-year pilot program designed for Veterans with no dental coverage and those eligible for VA dental care who would like to purchase additional coverage. Participation does not affect individuals’ entitlement to VA dental services and treatment.

There are no eligibility limitations based on service-connected disability rating or enrollment priority assignment. People interested in participating can complete an application online through either Delta Dental or MetLife. Coverage is available throughout the United States and its territories. The program provides another example of VA creating partnerships with the private sector for high-quality care.

 Participation does not affect individuals’ entitlement to VA dental services and treatment. 

94 Percent Plan to Renew Their Coverage

Dental services under the new program vary by plan and include diagnostic, preventive, surgical, emergency and endodontic/restorative treatment. Enrollment in VADIP is voluntary. Participants are responsible for all premiums, which range from $11.67 to $63.48 per month for individual plans. Copayments and other charges may apply.

A recent survey of VADIP participants reflect overall satisfaction with the program is 80 percent; 93 percent would recommend the program and 94 percent plan to renew their coverage.

For more information on VADIP, visit or call Delta Dental at 1-855-370-3303 or MetLife at 1-888-310-1681.

Veterans who are not enrolled in the VA health care system can apply at any time by visiting, calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visiting their local VA health care facility.

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Parades Planned Across America on Veterans Day

Veterans riding on a parade float.

Ceremonies and parades across the country show America’s gratitude.

“We pray and promise that those who have served and are still serving will never be forgotten, that returning warriors will not bear their wounds alone, that their families will receive help in facing uncertain futures, and that we, as a grateful nation, will embrace and care for survivors of those who do not return.”
Robert A. McDonald, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs

On Veterans Day, we celebrate the service, sacrifice and enduring achievements of almost 22 million living Americans who served our nation in uniform – at home and abroad – during times of both war and peace.

On the 11th day of the 11th month, as we have in so many years past, Americans will reflect on our way of life and pay tribute to the men and women who made it all possible.

At VA medical centers across America, we salute our fathers, mothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, Veterans all, our neighbors, friends and colleagues.

They are people who offered life’s most vital years in service to country – and sometimes sacrificed their health and welfare for us. They were our protectors and defenders, warfighters, peacemakers and peacekeepers. They were guardians of the greatest social and political experiment the world has ever known, representative democracy.

Below are just a few of the planned celebrations. Check here for activities at your VA Medical Center.


The Sheridan VA Medical Center will hold its annual Veterans Day Ceremony, this year honoring the 200th year of the National Anthem with essays written by local school children and the anthem sung by local celebrity singer – Dan Burges.

New York

The Canandaigua VA Medical Center will host a “Missing Man Ceremony” sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. International recording artist, songwriter and producer Jim Worthing will perform a special patriotic music concert to salute Veterans.


The Minneapolis VA Health Care System will host a Veterans Day program for hospitalized Veterans. Members of the Minnesota Vikings football team will visit patients in the Community Living Center and Spinal Cord Injury Center followed by a musical program and ceremony.


The Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center will host a series of Veterans Day activities and take a busload of Veterans to the Veterans Day Parade in Wichita to participate in the events.


The Tomah VA Medical Center will honor two Veterans who will be inducted into its Hall of Heroes, a reminder of the bravery and the hardships faced by the Veterans of our nation.


Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and Clinics will host its annual Veterans Day Ceremony, Parade and Welcome Home event with a ceremony at the Fisher House followed by a classic car show and picnic.

 We pray and promise that those who have served and are still serving will never be forgotten. 
— Robert A. McDonald, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs


The Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Columbia will host a recognition ceremony for the winners of an annual Veterans Day Essay Contest. Since 1999, the facility has conducted an essay contest for middle and high school students in the Columbia Public School District. Portions of the winning essays are read aloud.


The VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno will host the Rock for Warriors Show, designed to show appreciation to America’s Veterans, increase community awareness of VA programs and services, encourage citizens to become a VA volunteer and increase awareness of the issues facing injured Veterans and their families. The show is after the Veterans Day Parade in downtown Reno and admission is always complimentary and open to the public as concert organizers believe “the price has already been paid by our Veterans’ sacrifices.”


The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi will host a “Salute to Veterans” formal ceremony followed by a fish fry and will also participate in the City of Biloxi’s Veterans Day Parade.


The VA Roseburg Healthcare System will have a bus with patients in the annual Douglas County Veterans Day Parade. Patients will also enjoy a special luncheon and band performance.


The VA Northern California Health Care System in Sacramento will host the 9th Annual Veterans Day Ceremony to pay tribute to all U.S. military Veterans, along with a special recognition to the United Service Organization (USO) for their dedication to American troops for the last 70 years.


The Alexandria VA Health Care System will host a series of Veterans Day activities on their beautiful, historic grounds in Pineville, beginning with a formal program followed by a community parade and ending with a hot dog picnic.

South Carolina

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center will host the Veterans Day Parade in historic downtown Charleston featuring floats and bands led by the Vietnam Veterans of America motorcycle flag brigade. The parade is followed by a special free lunch for parade participants at the VA medical center.


The Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center in will hold a Veterans Day Ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park featuring keynote speaker Senator Richard Shelby. The ceremony will include the unveiling of a monument dedicated to a WWI Medal of Honor recipient.


The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta will join a Veterans Day parade through downtown Augusta with area high school and college bands, the Fort Gordon Band and Color Guard and Veterans from the medical center. The medical center will also have a breakfast for Veterans before the parade and employees will be marching in the parade and handing out flags. After the parade, a Veteran-led “Uptowners” band will entertain Veterans.

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Tabby Cat Makes Life Easier for Dying Veterans

Close-up of an orange cat sitting in a hallway.

Tom takes a moment to relax and reflect before continuing his rounds at the Salem VA’s hospice unit.

Photo by Marian McConnell, Salem VA

Surrounded by his family, World War II Veteran Edwin Gehlert lay quietly dying in a VA hospice unit in Salem, Virginia. He took a few final, shallow breaths.

At that moment, an orange tabby cat named Tom jumped onto his bed, curled up beside him and placed a furry orange paw in the Army Veteran’s open hand.

“That cat took him right to heaven,” said Elizabeth Gehlert, the Veteran’s wife of 68 years. “It was a beautiful passing and that cat is the one who made it happen.”

The Veteran’s daughter, Pamela Thompson, described the orange tabby as her lifeline on that difficult day.

“I kept telling daddy to let go, to go towards the light,” she said. “When Tom put his paw in daddy’s hand, it was like God was telling me he had ahold of my dad and that everything was OK.  That’s how I felt. I felt a peace come over me.”

A Little Person

Laura Hart, a physician assistant who works on the hospice unit at the Salem VA Medical Center, said Tom seems to have a sixth sense (in addition to his nine lives) when it comes to being in the right place at the right time.

“Tom has known what to do since the first day he was here,” she said. “I think there’s a little person inside him.”

Hart said family members visiting a dying Veteran do a lot of watching and waiting, so it can be a welcome diversion when a cat wanders in to visit or simply take a snooze.

“Having a cat in the room will take your mind off what’s going on,” she said. “He’ll do something silly – he’ll jump in the air or something and everyone will laugh. It breaks the tension.”  

Tom’s furry, comforting presence is also a big help to family members who need to return home after visiting with a loved one all day. “When they leave for the day and the cat’s still on the Veteran’s bed, it gives them some comfort,” Hart explained. “They don’t feel so bad about leaving. They’re sort of like, ‘OK, Tom’s here. It’s OK if I leave now.’ It makes them feel better.”

 He seems to know who he needs to spend time with. He just seems to know. 
— Dorothy Rizzo, palliative care coordinator, Salem VA Medical Center

No Cat Zone

Hart said Tom will sometimes spend hours with a dying Veteran, but then disappears for a time after the Veteran has finally passed. “Afterwards he kind of goes into hibernation for hours,” she said. “He finds some corner and goes to sleep. I guess he’s just recharging.”

Not everyone on the hospice unit is a cat lover, however.

“We’ve had a few patients who’ve said, ‘I don’t want that cat in my room,’” Hart observed. “When that happens, we put a sign outside their door that says, ‘No Cat Zone.’ But of course, that’s the room Tom wants to go into all the time. He’s like, ‘I need to be in there. I’ll change their mind.’”

There’s no doubt Tom regards the entire hospice unit as his personal domain.

“He’s interested in everything that goes on here,” Hart said. “He even comes to our team meetings, which we have twice a week. Sometimes the door to the meeting room will be shut, and we’ll hear Tom scratching at the door. He’ll scratch until we let him in.”

No Cuddling, Please

Dorothy Rizzo, palliative care coordinator on the hospice unit, described the orange tabby as a much-needed normalizing factor in an otherwise somber environment.

“There’s something about the presence of an animal that has a calming effect,” she said. “Watching the cat or petting him takes you out of the sad moment you’re in. Animals, like babies, are life-affirming in a way.

“It’s not that Tom’s an especially cuddly cat,” she added. “He’s not into cuddling, but he’ll curl up right beside you.”

And Tom holds no grudges against staff or family members who are simply not ‘cat’ people. He’ll never fail to use his special talents to assist you in your time of need, even if you don’t like him all that much.

“We had a Veteran here whose daughter did not like cats,” Rizzo said, “so when Tom came into the room she’d ignore him or shoo him away. One night she was here with her dad and stepped out of his room for a few minutes to take a break. Tom went out there after her, wrapped himself around her legs and meowed at her. That made her think she should maybe go back to her dad’s room and check on him, which she did just in time. Her father died moments later.”

Image of an elderly, bed-ridden Veteran reaching out to touch an orange tabby cat.

Tom and his friend, Air Force Veteran Erwin ‘Skip’ Wyman, share a quiet moment together.

Photo by Laura Hart, Salem VA

That Helpless Feeling

Betty Gillespie, a psychologist who works on the hospice unit, said family members seem to need Tom more than the Veterans who are dying.
“A lot of these Veterans are very stoic,” she observed. “These are men who fought in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. It almost seems like the family members need more emotional support than the patients themselves.

“Families often feel helpless,” she continued. “You’re watching your loved one die and you know you can’t save them. Sometimes you can’t even talk to them, or wake them up. All you can do is watch and wait. But Tom provides you with some comfort; he’s something for you to focus on. Because when a tabby cat casually walks into the room, it sends a message that everything is OK, everything is as it should be.”

“Tom’s like a good piece of music,” she added. “He instantly connects with everyone in the room.”

The Good Cat

Does the psychologist feel, as others do, that Tom possesses an almost supernatural gift of knowing which patient on the hospice unit is about to die?

“He’s just a cat,” she said. “I don’t think he has ESP or anything. He’s just a good cat.”

Air Force Veteran Skip Wyman, who has been on the hospice unit for several weeks, eagerly looks forward to his daily visit from the good cat.

“He was in my room yesterday for about two hours,” he beamed. “Then he walked out. I don’t know where he went. I haven’t seen him this morning yet. He’s around here somewhere.”

Wyman said Tom reminds him of a feline buddy he once hung around with.

“I call him Knothead because he reminds me of a cat I had when I was a younger man,” said the 79-year-old. “He’s the perfect picture of Knothead. They look just alike. And Knothead would sleep on my bed with me, just like Tom.”

One evening, after spending some time sleeping on Wyman’s bed, the orange tabby abruptly jumped to the floor and headed for the door. Tom clearly had business to attend to elsewhere on the unit.

Wyman called after him. “I said, ‘Tom, are you going to bed?’ And he just kept walking out the door. So then I said, ‘Knothead, are you going to bed?’ And darned if that cat didn’t stop and just look at me.”

Was Wyman perhaps conversing with his old friend Knothead? Did the cat turn around, jump back onto Wyman’s bed and spend the night with him, just like in the old days?

“Oh no,” Wyman laughed. “After a second or two he just kept walking out the door.” “He hasn’t been here to see me today yet,” he added. “I’m going to get the nurse to go look for him.”

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VA Offers Programs for Family Caregivers

Staff member in a caregiver classroom course.

Courses give caregivers the opportunity to learn in groups with other caregivers

November is National Family Caregivers Month.

As President Barack Obama has said, “Family caregivers have an immeasurable impact on the lives of those they assist, but their hours are long and their work is hard. Many put their own lives on hold to lift up someone close to them.”

Finding yourself in the role of a caregiver can be an overwhelming experience. Caregivers often find themselves taking on unfamiliar tasks with little experience and limited medical knowledge. It can be an extremely demanding job and many caregivers experience isolation and burnout.

VA’s Caregiver Support Program has developed several educational programs to assist caregivers in developing new skills sets and understanding the importance of self-care which helps avoid “caregiver burnout” and also helps caregivers achieve a sense of balance to their lives.

 Their hours are long and their work is hard. 

Building Better Caregivers™ (BBC) and Caregiver Self-Care Courses are two programs available to caregivers of enrolled Veterans of all eras. They are also available to Veterans who serve in a caregiving role to others such as caring for an aging or disabled spouse or parents, or a disabled child.

Building Better Caregivers™ was developed at Stanford University in conjunction with the National Council on Aging. It’s a six-week online workshop for family caregivers caring for a Veteran with dementia, memory problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, a serious brain injury or any other injury or illness.

The workshops group caregivers together online for each workshop.

An online Alumni Community was also established which allows caregivers to stay connected with each other and continue to receive support through the program following the completion of the six-week course. Caregiver Self-Care Courses offer four educational courses in face-to-face settings, allowing caregivers the opportunity to learn in small groups with other caregivers of Veterans. The courses focus on:

  • Managing Stress
  • Problem Solving/Effective Communication
  • Taking Care of Yourself
  • Utilizing Technology

Caregivers can sign up for one class or take all four short courses. Each runs about three hours. Participants receive a workbook for each course to take home and refer back to as needed. In addition to a workbook, a compact disc with relaxation exercises is provided with the Managing Stress course.

Caregivers interested in learning more about these programs can contact the Caregiver Support Coordinator at their nearest VA Medical Center. Use the zip code locator feature on this web site

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Burn pit exposure? Sign up now in VA Registry.

Soldier throwing waste in burn pit.

Smoke from these pits and other airborne hazards during deployment contained substances that may have health effects.

Marine Veteran Rebecca Crawford was so concerned with returning from her tour in Iraq with “two arms and two legs” intact that she didn’t give much thought to the fumes she was breathing while performing her routine job duties.

Tasked with providing base support, Rebecca’s duties alternated between sitting in a foxhole for 12 hours a day—securing the perimeter—to churning unknown mixtures of refuse, chemicals and human waste in open burn pits.

The use of burn pits was a common waste disposal practice at military sites outside the United States such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smoke from these pits contained substances that may have short- and long-term health effects, especially for those who were exposed for long periods or those more prone to illness such as individuals with pre-existing asthma or other lung or heart conditions.

 The registry is a tool to help … identify health conditions possibly related to burn pits. 

Some Veterans have reported respiratory symptoms and other health conditions that they believe are related to burn pits. There are studies that provide information about the health effects related to exposure, but not enough to determine the long-term impacts. In response, VA is conducting research on the issue and has created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry for Veterans and Servicemembers.

The registry is a tool to help participants become more aware of their health and to identify health conditions possibly related to exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards (e.g., sand, dust and particulates. Participation is voluntary and the enrollment questionnaire can be used to identify health concerns, guide discussions with a health care provider and document deployment-related exposures.

Sees Value in Enrolling

Still young and with more than 10 years since exposure, Rebecca is healthy and undecided about participating in the registry. She, however, sees value in receiving updated news and information about the long-term health effects of burn pits.

“I think one of the benefits of enrolling in the registry would be if some new concerns came up about inhaling the fumes or the smoke, I would be notified quickly since they have my name and contact information,” said Rebecca. “The registry would make it possible for VA to contact me and say that we know you were exposed to burn pits and this is what you should be thinking about now.”

All Veterans and active-duty Servicemembers are encouraged to check their eligibility and participate in the registry. VA will use deployment data provided by the Department of Defense (DOD) to determine eligibility.

To access the questionnaire, participants will need a DOD Self-Service level-2 logon (DS-Logon). The DS-Logon is a secure, self-service ID that allows Veterans and Servicemembers to access several websites, including VA’s eBenefits and the burn pit registry, using a single username and password. Ensure your web browser has “scripting” enabled.

Veterans who are eligible for the registry are also eligible to obtain an optional no-cost, in-person medical evaluation. Participants already enrolled in VA health care should contact their primary care provider to schedule an evaluation. Veterans not already enrolled should contact an Environmental Health Coordinator at the nearest VA facility or call 1-877-222-8387.

Active-duty Servicemembers, including activated Reserve and Guard personnel, should contact their local military hospital or clinic to schedule an appointment for a voluntary medical evaluation. Please state that you are calling for an appointment specifically to address “health concerns related to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry exposures.”

Quick Links:

Sign up for the registry.

View frequently asked questions about the registry and how to sign up.

Get a DS-Logon account.

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Veterans Arts Festival is Fun and Therapeutic

Man and his art.

National Veterans Creative Arts Festival October 27-November 2, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wis.

Creative expression is an important component of healthy living. VA’s annual Creative Arts Festival demonstrates that healing goes well beyond a patients’ physical needs. Creative arts therapy plays a key role at VA in rehabilitation and recovery.

The Creative Arts Festival is the culmination of a year-long fine arts talent competition involving thousands of participants nationwide and is open to all Veterans receiving care at VA medical facilities.

The festival gives thousands of Veterans the opportunity to express themselves creatively and enables them to have life changing experiences connected to their health and recovery.

According to Elizabeth Mackey, Director of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, “VA is very proud to bring well-deserved recognition to our outstanding Veteran performers, writers and artists. This event accomplishes so much, offering extensive creative arts therapy and rehabilitation for Veterans nationwide, while delighting audiences in both the visual and performing arts.

“VA is committed to providing therapeutic solutions that go beyond traditional physical medicine. The Creative Arts Festival provides an artistic avenue for the physical, mental and emotional healing of our nation’s heroes.

“We look forward to a program that inspires our guests who witness the remarkable talents of these Veterans who remain motivated regardless of their health challenges.”

The competition includes 53 categories in the visual arts division that range from oil painting to leatherwork to paint-by-number kits. In addition, there are 120 categories in the performing arts pertaining to all aspects of music, dance, drama and creative writing.

VA medical facilities incorporate creative arts into their recreation therapy programs to further the rehabilitation process for both inpatients and outpatients. This annual competition recognizes the progress and recovery made through that therapy and raises the visibility of the creative achievements of our nation’s Veterans after disease, disability or life crisis.

It’s an opportunity to demonstrate the depth of artistic talent and skill that our nation’s Veterans possess and how artistic expression promotes healing and enhances quality of life.

As Director Mackey noted, “The camaraderie among the Veteran artists, the beautiful art on display and the world class performances all combine to produce a week that inspires all of us and reminds us of the healing power of artistry.”

Just two of the thousands who participate

John “Jay” Harden, Jr. from O’Fallon, Mo., served in the Air Force as a B-52 Navigator during the Vietnam War. During his eight years of service one of the constants that kept him going was the letters from his wife, Carolyn. Today, he uses writing to help him cope with traumatic stress.

His original piece, “My Mother of All Letters,” won first place in the Inspirational Personal Experience category of the creative writing division in the 2013 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition.

 When I got home, I lost my way. 

Brenda Bushera made a military career ministering to others with her music, including a 10-month Iraq deployment where she played a combination of punk, alternative and a bit of pop giving young soldiers the music they wanted to hear to take their minds off the war.

“Playing in a war zone was a tough job, filled with danger, hours of travel and friends who didn’t make it home.”

But when she took the war home with her, it was music that helped Bushera heal herself. “When I got home, I lost my way,” She said.

Bushera came to the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System in Temple, Texas, for treatment for mental health issues and alcoholism. “I don’t mind telling people. It is what it is. I needed to do this for me.”

“It was my music therapist who encouraged me to audition for the Creative Arts Competition. I knew if I was going to do this, I needed to be healthy. I’ve used music to help others. I have to have music in my life. I never knew that I would need it for myself.”

“Music brought me back. I’m just elated to be here. This is a breath of relief that I’ve still got it, and I can still do this professionally. It gives me hope that I can get back and start my career again.”

Learn more about Jay and Brenda and hundreds of other brave Veterans.

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