Some veterans rank Augusta VA high for treatment

Vaughn Maxwell was in pretty bad shape after he had a stroke on Easter 2011.

The former Army infantry commander, who received a Combat Infantryman Badge for his service in the Korean War, had limited upper-body strength and difficulty getting into chairs, moving with a walker and flexing his finger muscles enough to write.

Now, after several months of occupational and physical therapy at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the 84-year-old Augustan has regained nearly complete control of his hands, legs and arms.

“Of all the therapy I received, the VA was by far the best,” Maxwell said last week at his Forest Hills home, which the Augusta VA outfitted with an aluminum prefabricated ramp and a more handicap-accessible tub for the 100 percent disabled veteran. “It was just first class.”

Despite three deaths and four injuries being linked to the VA hospital’s gastrointestinal clinic, some patients in other programs say the care they receive is “top notch” and that fellow veterans should continue to seek out the services.

The Augusta Warrior Project, a national advocacy group that works in collaboration with the hospital to find veterans a home, job, education and access to behavioral counseling and health care, reiterated that message.

“We should seek to maximize
enrollment in our VA medical center because it is the third-largest employer in Augusta,” Jim Lorraine, the
organization’s president and CEO, said in an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle. “If Washington, D.C., reduced the size of our VA medical center due to underutilization, it would have a significant impact on our community.”

The VA hospital is a two-division hospital that specializes in neurology, psychiatry, and rehabilitative and spinal-cord injury care at its two Augusta locations. Together, the campuses offer 31 programs and services, including gastroenterology, and are authorized more than 660 beds for care, according to its Web site.

Maxwell arrived at the hospital in July 2011 after his health insurance agreed to pay for two months of therapy at Golden Living, a nursing home off Wrightsboro Road. The VA accepted him as an inpatient into its rehabilitation program.

Every day, Maxwell did occupational and physical therapy exercises on the hospital’s ground floor to relearn how to use his hands, legs and arms. When he became able to perform routine tasks on his own, he was discharged into outpatient treatment and given equipment and adjustable handheld tools to continue therapy at home.

“When I had home care, a nurse would come in every other day for a couple hours, but at the VA, they gave me a schedule every morning and out of eight possible hours of therapy, I probably took six of them, which I felt at the time was probably killing me, but in all honestly, it likely saved me,” Maxwell said. “It was the constant attention and tracking of my progress that made their care so great.”

J.B. Ryner, an 83-year-old Korean War veteran who lives in Augusta, also cited good care by the VA in helping him battle diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that occurs when high blood sugar injures pain fibers in a person’s body.

“If they didn’t do what they did, it would be hard for me to walk, which is saying a lot, because I’m a big, strong guy,” said Ryner, who started receiving treatment at the VA in 2010.

At the height of the gastrointestinal program’s problems in August 2012, 5,100 consultations dating back at least two years were delayed because management failed to refer patients to gastroenterologists as recommended by their primary physicians, administrators said.

Ryner, who is 100 percent disabled, said the VA conducted an electrolysis on him at the onset of his diagnosis then treated him with nerve relaxers and painkillers. Now, he is able to work out four times a week at home and reach a doctor or nurse within a day’s notice if any problems arise between six-month checkups.

“They don’t fool around,” Ryner said. “They do not make you sit down there and wait forever to tell you what’s wrong. They go ahead and diagnose you and get the process moving. They’re very efficient.”

Lynn Thompson, the wife of a former Marine who served in Korea and lives in North Augusta, said the VA has helped her husband. Walter Thompson, 83, suffers from dementia and has had to visit the VA emergency room at least once a year in the past decade for nose bleeds, necessary testing and annual checkups.

“Every time he has needed to get a hold of his doctor or needed a prescription refilled, there has never been a problem,” Thompson said.

The three veteran families said despite the current issues with the VA’s gastro program, hospitals are bound to encounter problems and that they still encourage veterans to trust the hospital. Ryner said he even told his grandson, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, to get his name in the VA system once he becomes eligible.

“I just consider it a great thank you for everything we did for this country,” he said.

For the most part, the three families described the staff at the Augusta VA as caring, concerned and always welcoming.

“Even though I do my therapy on my own now at home, I stop in the gym from time to time,” Maxwell said. “And the staff is always glad to see me.”

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THE BACK STORY

AUGUSTA VA WOES

BACKGROUND: Between 2010 and 2013, three cancer patients died and four other veterans were seriously harmed because of delays in the gastrointestinal program at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

DEVELOPMENT: On Monday, health care administrators at the VA reported that they have hired additional staff and eliminated the hospital’s backlog of more than 5,000 unresolved gastrointestinal consultations.

WHAT’S NEXT: Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during Monday’s congressional visit to Augusta that the House Veterans Affairs Com­mittee hopes to have answers about the backlog – including why it happened and who was responsible – within 30 days.

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