Paralyzed Veterans Joins San Diego VAMC to Mark 25 Years of Spinal Cord Injury Care

San Diego SCI Unit 25th Anniversary Celebration
Sherman Gillums (left) talks with attendees at the San Diego VAMC SCI Unit 25th Anniversary Celebration. Photo courtesy Steven Shelden.
On April 25, 2014, Paralyzed Veterans of America joined members of the VA San Diego Healthcare System in celebrating 25 years of serving paralyzed veterans in its spinal cord injury (SCI) center.

The 55,000 square-foot SCI unit opened with a 30 bed acute/20 bed long-term capacity and rehabilitation center, admitting its first patient on March 27, 1989. Since its opening, the unit has admitted more than 8,800 inpatients and had 250,000 outpatient visits. The unit currently provides life-long care to more than 700 veterans and active duty personnel in San Diego, Imperial Counties, Arizona and southern Nevada.

“I was injured 23 years ago, and at that time, the center was nearly brand new,” said veteran Navy SEAL Al Kovach, Jr., national senior vice president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I did all of my rehab there and have been going back for 23 years. Never would I have dreamed that 23 years later I would be handing out awards to the same people who cared for me when I was newly injured.”

The center not only serves the care and rehabilitation needs of paralyzed veterans; it also ensures those veterans have everything they need when they return home, including ramps, rails, and other needed modifications. The center’s staff also encourages veterans to engage in adaptive sports.

Over his 23 years of care at the San Diego SCI unit, Kovach said the quality of care has improved, in part through the introduction of ceiling-mounted lifts to assist with bed transfers as well as the introduction of electronic medical records.

Still, Kovach added that the 25-year anniversary marks not only a celebration of the SCI unit but also reignites a conversation about expanding the unit to accommodate additional beds for acute and long-term care. While Paralyzed Veterans of America began lobbying for the new SCI unit a couple of years ago, there has yet to be agreement on how to roll it out.

“We’ve outgrown the existing SCI center as what is needed has changed since 1989. At this moment, there are no long-term beds at the San Diego VAMC, which falls short of the patients' needs” Kovach said.

Sherman Gillums, Jr., associate director of veterans benefits at Paralyzed Veterans of America and also a long-time patient at the San Diego SCI unit, said the unit has truly set the benchmark for SCI injury and disease care in the VA system. Part of that success is due in part to the annual site visit by Paralyzed Veterans at each SCI/D center in the country to assess and compare the quality of care at each facility, he said.

“The San Diego facility remains among the best in the country due in large part to Paralyzed Veterans' contribution and the work of a dedicated, hardworking VA staff,” Gillums said. “The 25th year anniversary celebration gave us a chance to highlight their sustained success and thank them on behalf of every veteran who had passed through the San Diego SCI/D Center over the last quarter century.”

Learn more about spinal cord injury

Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and  


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