By: Peter Sessum
The Department of Veterans Affairs, as an organization, gets a bad rap. Every time someone in their leadership does something stupid the entire organization gets attacked. As veteran I know what it is like to be punished for the actions of a random military member so I thought I would submit this as somewhat objective view of services I experienced at the Seattle VA hospital.
In the interest of full disclosure I am currently rated at 70 percent service connected disabled and have been dealing with the VAMC since 2000 when I went from being one of the youngest people there to being one of the old guys. I have seen how services and the building itself has changed when trying to deal with the tidal wave of new patients. One year I was a regular of six different specialty clinics so I have a decent view of the breadth of services.
For this I thought I would use the tree up and three down format (or sustain and improve) and some tips for surviving a stay at the VA hospital. Just to get the bad news out of the way, here are the tree areas of improvement.
The food sucks. Oh my God it is so bad. And you know that is saying a lot because I was a grunt. I don’t know it they watch too much cooking shows on TV, but most of the meals were really just kicking a man when he is down. I had been stuck there for a few days on a food related illness and they were serving me that swill. To their credit breakfast was decent but you can’t really mess up pancakes and bacon. Trying to mass produce lasagna was a complete failure and at a time when I should be eating it was hard to choke some of that down. On the plus side, they let friends and family bring you food and getting a hot pizza on my last night there was a morale booster.
- There were a couple people that needed some improvement. I was at the emergency room and sent home before I was actually admitted a couple of days later with a temperature of 105. That ER doc could have been a little more attentive. She acted like I was an interruption. Not how a sick person wants to feel. On my first night being admitted one nurse seemed to miss a few things. I don’t remember what it was for, but you get your nostrils swabbed and those were left in my room and another nurse had to be called in to draw blood due to lack of skill on the first one. There were a couple other little things that were not life threatening but I really want to feel like my medical treatment was through.
- The lack of Wi-Fi. After a couple of days a person starts to get a little stir crazy. Now maybe they don’t need to connect the entire hospital but at least the areas with overnight visitors. They could even make it secure so only those patients had access. Granted, the first night and day I was there I could barely keep my eyes open and was pretty much useless. But after that I needed some entertainment. The TV worked in my first room but when the moved me the TV in the second room had some issues. It also would have been good to have a pamphlet of what the channels were like you get in a hotel. I know that keeping it sterile is an issue, but if it was on a sign fixed to the wall or disposable printed sheets it might have worked. Really anything is better than having to scroll through all the channels.
Overall the negative issues were pretty minimal and not enough to be a detriment to my care. Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of data usage on my tablet so I could watch Netflix and I learned that it could be used as a Wi-Fi hot spot and I could get on the Internet with my computer. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that until my third or fourth day.
Now for the good news
- The nurses were great. Overall the entire medical staff was pretty good but the nurses were stellar. While it can be said that all nurses have it rough, they are underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated, nurses at the VA have to deal with us. And vets are a pretty unruly bunch overall, imagine having to deal with a bunch of sick vets all the time. While most were female there were a couple dudes in there. All were really personable and treated me like a person and not a room number. When they would come on shift the nurse that was assigned to me would introduce her/himself and write their name on the board. Most would take a moment to talk and it felt genuine. Personality wise, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch.
- The doctors were professional, competent and genuinely seemed to care. They listened to me and answered any questions I had. The only downside is that they kept telling me they were going to try and release me and kept me another day. After a few days of that I started threatening to make a break for it. Overall the care was good and they tried hard to get me out of there in a timely manner but they also wanted to make sure I was healthy enough to leave. It is a delicate balance but I think they achieved it.
- The facilities are actually pretty good. There was an effort made to make sure I had a private room. Once they were sure I was not contagious they didn’t try to move someone in. After my first couple of days a woman was admitted to my wing and I had to give up my room. They wanted to give the woman a room with her own bathroom and most of the single rooms shared a bathroom between them. It was a legit reason and I had no issues with moving. By that time I was moving around pretty well. The beds were comfy and except for the cable in one room (there were a lot of other channels that worked) everything worked as it should. I can’t speak for other facilities, but the VAMC in Seattle has been doing a lot of construction and updating their facilities. The physical therapy area is especially new looking.
Overall my stay was good. I went in feeling like death warmed over and left feeling about 75 percent. It was a rough first couple of days but smooth sailing heath wise after that. I really liked the staff I interacted with and they were friendly and helpful. Once I was able to get up and move around they let me roam the halls. I am used too a pretty busy hospital but after hours is it like a ghost town. Kind of creepy.
If you ever find yourself stuck in an overnight stay at the VA here are a few tips to make things easier. Most of these are dependent on being strong enough to move around and not being contagious.
- Ask where the ice machine is. They had an area that had an ice machine, lemonade packets and crackers. Unfortunately, during my stay they were out of graham crackers but it is good to be able to grab something to nibble on and stay hydrated without having to bug the nurses. Plus it is a good excuse to get moving.
- Ask if there is anything you can do to save them time. I had an IV connected to me for the first couple of days and every time I would bend my arm too far it would interrupt the flow and the machine would shut off. Day One I was too far out of it to be much help, but Day Three a nurse told me what button to push to get it to stop. This way I didn’t have to keep calling them in to do something I could easily do. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere.
- Be nice to the staff. If you are rude to a nurse at the VA just know that you are a dick and every time you are uncool to a VA nurse a vet drops his beer. Seriously, their job sucks and having to put up with sick vet is a challenge.
- Find ways to amuse yourself. I asked everyone that came into my room what their pain level way. Aside from being amusing because I was asked it all the time, some people were surprised and reacted well. It is better when you treat your doctors and nurses like people and not the help.
- I would also gasp in pain every time they would use the alcohol pads before a needle stick. It is funny how much a nurse would jump because they weren’t expecting it. I thought it was funny and some would laugh. You can only do it up needles don’t bother you. If you are going to freak out during the stick, don’t mess with them.
- Be comfortable. I had my PJs and slippers so I could relax in style. They have robes and pants that go along with the backless gowns. No need to be mooning everyone when all you want to do is stretch your legs.
- Have people bring you food, something to drink, as in hydrate not intoxicate, and save the bottles. You can use them to mix up the lemonade packets they have. The food seriously sucks so having something to snack on is key.
- Get entertainment brought in. A computer, tablet, anything. Watch movies on your laptop, whatever you need to make it through the day. Charging cables are key, don’t forget those.
I have been admitted to the Seattle VAMC twice and both were this year. Once was just overnight but that last one was five days and it was a challenge. My care was very good and I have been dealing with a lot of doctors over the years so I know good care when I see it. It hasn’t always been this good, but the ones that have to deal with overnight guests seem to be pretty on the ball. Be cool to the people in charge of making you well and don’t take out your frustrations on the system on the people treating you. They have a tough job and their job is in service to those who served. There is no more honorable profession ad they deserve that respect.