Dan Rackley is a US Naval veteran living in Philadelphia and a contributor to "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?"
From 2002 until around 2008, the Veterans Administration hospital in Philadelphia botched ninety or so treatments for prostate cancer. This is a plain and simple fact. The hospital was fined for these horrible mistakes and I would like to think that everything has been done in regard to this incident to see that it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, there are several aspects of the day to day operations of this particular facility that still need some tweaking. Not all of them have to do with the medical staff. As I have stated in previous articles, I as a veteran am truly grateful for the medical care that I receive. There is no disputing this. I know that a great deal of the medical staff at almost every VA hospital is on loan from another medical facility, and their expertise has helped thousands that desperately need it.
As everyone knows, Philadelphia is where a good portion of our country was laid out. The City of Brotherly Love they call it. When I was first moving to this city, I looked up the Philadelphia VA and saw how great the care was here. Based on most of my experiences there, a good portion of it was true. But there is a side to the facility that at times makes it so that more than a few veterans probably shudder when they realize they have an appointment coming up. Sometimes, it seems like the brotherly love you get there is the kind if you have a brother that likes to tease you incessantly.
On several occasions I have been to the facility and walked out almost in tears. Not from a shot where the needle stayed in too long. Nor was it from a grueling physical therapy session that pushed me a little too hard. It was from a strictly personal level. From the way that I had been dealt with as a human being. You see, there are several people that work at VA’s, and I am talking about the facility in Philadelphia simply because it is the one I have the most recent experience with, that couldn’t care about whether you are a veteran or not. To them, it seems as if you are just a gnat to them; an annoying inconvenience. A good portion of the time you will go to ask them a question and you will get the inevitable deer in headlights look as if they are saying, “why on earth are you speaking to me.”
Over the course of the past year I have had several of these incidents. Almost all of them I had reported to what the hospital calls the Patient Advocate. Quite simply, you go speak to this person about the bad or unfair treatment you have received. They file a complaint on your behalf, or at least they say they will. One particular incident with this I finished up a call with the Patient Advocate, then was informed the head of the department the complaint was directed towards would be getting in contact with me shortly. Roughly a week went by with no word. Finally out of frustration I called this particular department head who then curtly informed me that the advocate had never even spoke to them and that I was pretty much wasting his time. So even if you do have a legitimate complaint, you will probably never hear any resolution come from it. You’d have much better luck taking a page from Martin Luther and nailing a list of grievances to the front door.
This same particular department, which happens to be dental by the way, seems to need a remedial course in basic human decency. Around a year ago, I went to the dental department complaining of pain in one of my teeth. They informed me that it would need to be pulled and that they would be happy to do it that day. That seemed just fine to me. They usher me into the chair, and stick the needle into my mouth to numb me up. No less than two minutes later, the dentist begins to attempt pulling. This thing wasn’t even numb yet. When I closed my eyes in an attempt to try to withstand the pain, I start getting yelled at to open my eyes. After awhile, I finally just had a panic attack right there in the dentist chair. I couldn’t take anymore and had to drive home embarrassed. Two days later I come back in to reattempt the extraction. Different dentist, he couldn’t do it. Cracked the tooth, bleeding all over the place and they give me a tiny packet of gauze and send me home saying there was nothing that they could do. It eventually got pulled; but I would almost have lived with the pain then be dealt with the way I was.
It has been a year since this and I have not worked up the courage to go back up to that department until this week. I needed a cleaning, something relatively trivial. I walked up to make the appointment in a fairly jovial mood, thinking that the chances the receptionist staff would have changed from the last time I was up there. Nope. I walk up to the counter very politely, and then immediately get told I have to find my primary care person for a referral. Now, when I say told; I mean I was looked at like a dog and talked to like an idiot for not knowing the too intricate for its own good VA infrastructure. They don’t even bother to look you in the eye. I go and get my referral. I walk back up to the desk and the same lady, who I had spoken to fifteen minutes before, looks at me and just says two words, “name please.” In a tone that could cut through your soul. No hello, no nothing. I finally just blew my stack and said to her that yes, I was having a wonderful day and I was doing fine. Then I get this look that could have burnt holes in my body. Apparently they did not like to be made known of their apathy towards you.
It seems to me that some of the people that work in support roles in the Philadelphia VA could not give a damn what you did or where you did it. You are just another body they have to deal with. There is no sensitivity to the struggles we as veterans have gone through. They seem to carry this aura of not giving a damn about you. I don’t know if I’d call for sensitivity training for every member of the support staff; but what I would do is let them know one thing. We were trained to be hyper vigilant. We know when someone couldn’t care what we are saying. Some of the support people need to be expressly told that the people they are dealing with have more problems than they care to mention. And they need to be dealt with a little more delicately. We should not be treated like an inconvenience; we’re sick and we want to be treated decently.
But for God’s sake, if you are a veteran, please do not go into your VA hospital and say anything above a whisper about the treatment you are receiving. They have armed police at every VA, that the second you get a little too vocal; have absolutely no problem escorting you out of the building. The same way Wal-Mart doesn’t like their employees talking about unions; some folks at the VA do not want to you express your feelings to them directly. They simply go not like hearing they are doing anything less than a stellar job. Get above a whisper, or finally blow your stack and use a smallest amount of profanity they will tell you that you are making a scene. It’s like what happened in Arizona with James Fuller, the second you speak your mind they want you out of there as soon as possible. We need to be heard by them, even if it is not the kind words they were expecting. They need to know that they cannot treat veterans they way they do just because they feel like it. They do not need to remind us at every corner there is someone that will take us off the grounds if we start saying things they do not want to hear. The last thing some us ever need to see again is a gun anyway.
There also needs to be better attention paid to other issues as well. For example, a veteran should never under any circumstances be told to contact their Congressman when they have an issue. It should be solved internally within the VA.
There is also a severe lack of information being given to veterans. As an Iraq War Vet, the first time I walked into the Philadelphia VA I should have been told about the Operation Iraqi Freedom newsletter. I just learned of that today through Facebook. Just another thing that shows the chain of information gets broken like a piece of balsa wood when it comes to the news actually getting to the veteran. Nevermind finding out about appointments. It probably took ten or fifteen attempts for them to update my phone number successfully to get appointment reminders. No wonder they couldn’t get ahold of me. It only took them nine months to enter my phone number into the system!
I’m not saying that everyone at the Philadelphia VA is bad. The bulk of the staff there is absolutely amazing. But the people that treat we veterans like second class citizens need to know that we are noticing. We take note every time you treat us like garbage. You know who you are, or at least I hope. The City of Philadelphia should also take note as to how some of us are being treated. We should at least in the city where our great country first started be treated a little better than we are. We shouldn’t have to take it. So if you are a veteran, and the next time you get treated like I have just described; don’t hesitate to tell them directly. Maybe if we are lucky, the city will take note and see that everything is not as great as it seems over there.
I know that I am not the only person who feels this way. There are probably thousands of men and women who have been treated terribly at VA hospitals. I just hope enough of us will find the courage to speak up. Eventually the right people will get the message and hopefully some things can change. I remember the first time I watched Born on the Fourth of July; and I was shocked at how awful the treatment at veteran’s hospitals was. It’s better than it was, but it should get better.
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