Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Our Story: A View from Both Sides of the Fence


I am the wife of an OIF Veteran (Iraq 04-05).  I have so many stories that would make the VA proud of its employees, so many examples that the VA's mission is being carried out by the hearts employed.

Sadly, I have MORE stories that would cause the people in Washington, DC to cringe, sigh, and perhaps take action to remedy.

I spent five years working as a nurse for the VA, and it was the single most enlightening, moving, and awakening period of my life.  The VA is where I learned about all eras of veterans, where I was allowed to be face to face with our nation's heroes. It was my absolute honor to work there and care for veterans.

But as my husband's injuries from Iraq (multiple exposures close range to explosions causing concussion on top of concussion) and PTSD with major depression and anxiety with suicidal ideation, and sadly, more close calls than I'd care to count.... these injuries became so pervasive and debilitating, it was an accident waiting to happen leaving him on his own while I worked.  I couldn’t leave him in charge of my children.  I left abruptly.  I cried all the way to the VA the day I quit, I cried all the way home.  It was bittersweet.

You must understand that my stories are laced with the knowledge of VA culture, and I believe firmly that my experience as an employee is an important piece to how I feel things can be changed for the better.

I don't want to sit and recant every "bad" thing I experienced as a caregiver, or on the inside when I was BOTH employee and caregiver, but in order for change to occur, you MUST take note of these stories, and know that come from a spirit of cooperation, and willingness to see, and the want, to continue the VA's legacy of providing world class care.

Let me tell you, largely, we are failing at this mission.  As an employee, I sent the director of our VA an email asking him if he felt it appropriate we turn away suicidal young veterans.  He responded with the need for names and dates and times.  I was unable to provide dates and times, and fearing retaliation (VA culture), I did not provide him the names.  It was when I quit my job, and returned one night with my veteran husband, extremely suicidal, that I witnessed first-hand, the attempt to turn away my own husband.  We demanded he stay for observation.  This complaint was communicated to our home VA after his stay.

The next time he became suicidal, they attempted to discharge him early, brushing off his suicidal behavior, and thoughts.  It took intervention from a non-profit and notifying VA central office to get him to stay, after which the VA in turn decided to commit him, under grounds of "not wanting treatment.”  When I spoke with the county, to clarify we absolutely WANTED treatment, the commitment was not pursued.  We felt retaliated against. The doctor then immediately discharged my husband without waiting for me, his caregiver to show up for discharge planning.  I arrived at the VA about two hours later, and found my husband WANDERING the VA campus.  Without cell phone, or his wallet, we are fortunate he didn't decide to walk up the busy highway to our house.

This was hands down the worst care I have ever witnessed, and I was appalled by the "hospitalist" in charge.

On a much more revealing note of the HEARTS of the VA, shortly after this incident I was walking down the hall with the husband in the VA, I was upset over a calloused comment from staff, and husband walked a few feet in front of me.  Tears were brimming in my eyes. Trying to remain calm and composed, in the hallways of the VA, a few tears did spill.  An officer walked by and noticed my red face and sadness.  He had turned the corner and though we knew each other from my time as a nurse there, most employees know that when I am there with the husband, to let me be, to protect and honor our privacy.  This time, Officer B. came back around the corner (I heard the keys of his ring stop jingling... and then come around).  I looked back and he was there, he gave me a very sincere hello and hang in there.  Let me tell you, that was the absolute most PROFESSIONAL, COMPASSIONATE, and JUST WHAT a crying caregiver needed at the moment exchange.  My husband and I are consistently impressed with many of our VA's officers.  Many are veterans themselves, if not all.  The force at my VA, is hands down a credit and saving grace.  Our VA officers deserve a head nod from Washington. I have watched them for five years as a nurse, and a caregiver.  I have cried in front of them on the way to my car after leaving my husband in the locked psych for the first time... They ALWAYS make time; they ALWAYS show the UTMOST respect and understanding to our veterans.  When I think of who is living proof of the VA mission, it is our VA's police force.

But, again, back to the culture and attitudes allowed to exist within the VA.  We have experienced blatant disrespect, and at one point, I, as a caregiver, was told by a trusted member of husband's care team, to "back off" and "let them do their job.”  That was absolutely crushing.  Of course, this came on the heels of the then suicide prevention coordinator telling me, when I inquired about suicidality and the behaviors to look for, statistics etc. (as my husband had finally just revealed he had thoughts and parasuicidal behavior), I was responsible for the "most fragmented care she has ever seen.” and that I as the caregiver had "created a codependency" in my husband, and her husband himself has "anxiety" she "gets what it is like" etc. etc. to live with someone with an anxiety disorder....

To simplify the above statement, I have been held accountable for my husband’s care when it goes WRONG, and blamed when the SYSTEM failed him, yet when there is any sight of improvement, it is the VA's diligence that did it.  I am often kept OUT of the loop, as many caregivers are.

To learn more about the State of Heroes and Families project, please visit our main site or visit any of the following direct project links -

Why This Started: www.familyofavet.com/state_of_veterans_families-why.html
The Statistics: www.familyofavet.com/state_of_veterans_families-statistics.html
Our Stories: www.familyofavet.com/state_of_veterans_families-stories.html
What We Hope For: www.familyofavet.com/state_of_veterans_families-hopes.html

FAQ About the Project: www.familyofavet.com/state_of_veterans_families-faq.html

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