For paralyzed Vietnam Army veteran Warner Robertson, transitioning to just one hospital within the St. Louis VA Medical Center system of care has been beneficial to his recovery.
VA St. Louis Health Care System
“Jefferson Barracks is a better setup for a long stay, but the new spinal cord injury (SCI) unit at John Cochran does eliminate the need to run back and forth in an ambulance,” Robertson said. “They treat us real good here.”
The St. Louis VA Medical Center system of care in February 2014 opened a six-bed SCI unit at the St. Louis John Cochran VA medical facility. The VA system of care in this city is unique in that it offers two separate facilities that offer different types and levels of care. This meant that veterans needing basic, non-acute SCI services could receive care at the Jefferson Barracks VA facility, while those needing acute or emergency care were required to go to the John Cochran VA facility where SCI-specific services were unavailable. Historically, the system had created gaps in health care for veterans with paralysis.
Paralyzed Veterans of America, with the support of Missouri congressional representatives, began advocating for the six-bed SCI unit at the John Cochran facility nearly 10 years ago. Until now, veterans with spinal cord injury or dysfunction (SCI/D) within the St. Louis VA system of care who needed tertiary or acute care, such as surgical, oncology or pulmonary services were often left with their SCI/D-specific needs unmet due to the lack of SCI/D expertise at John Cochran, said Sherman Gillums, Jr., Associate Executive Director for Veterans Benefits at Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“This lack of expertise caused unnecessary medical problems like pressure ulcers and infections that could have been avoided if the provider had SCI/D training and knew what to look for,” Gillums said. “By piloting the six-bed unit, veterans with paralysis who, for example, also need cancer treatment or kidney dialysis are assured competent, high-quality care that’s consistent with Paralyzed Veterans' long-held standards.”
Lana McKenzie, Associate Executive Director of Medical Services and Health Policy, has been dedicated to this project for almost five years and notes, "There has been a team of dedicated SCI/D clinicians filling the gaps created by limited support from the Jefferson Barracks facility. The work of these nurses and physicians, while adequate in the wake of limited resources, is now optimized with the availability of designated SCI/D inpatient beds at John Cochran facility. This means of veterans can receive treatment and services within the VA SCI system of care, a proven continuum of care with longstanding successful outcomes."
Along with Robertson, paralyzed veteran Jose Colbert is one of four patients who transitioned to the SCI satellite unit at John Cochran this month. He said the quality of care is equal to before, but likes having his own private bathroom and having nurses and medical staff more readily available.
“The medical staff has some great ideas, and everyone works together,” Colbert said. “It’s good because I have three types of health problems, and I’m right where I need to be. Before I was going down to Jefferson Barracks and then getting shipped back here.”
The new SCI unit at John Cochran represents Paralyzed Veterans of America unwavering commitment to ensuring all veterans with SCI/D have access to quality care at all VA medical centers across the country.
“We have worked closely with members of Congress and hospital leadership to ensure that local veterans who need specialized care do not incur pressure ulcers, genitourinary problems, and other costly, avoidable afflictions while under the care of non-SCI providers,” Gillums said. “We will continue to monitor quality of care issues just as we do at all VA SCI centers across the country.”
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Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.