Monday, August 13, 2007

Hip Hip Hurray for the Reno VA!

Today I took Dad to our local VA Medical Center. He needed some medication that the Philadelphia VA was supposed to have mailed to my house, but that hasn't arrived yet. He's been out of those meds for three days now, and I'd called the Reno VAMC and been told that he could register at eligibility services with that hospital and get a stopgap supply of pills.

Since I hadn't been to this hospital before, of course I parked near the wrong entrance. When we went inside and I asked a passing man in a white coat -- doctor or tech, I don't know which -- how to get to the eligibility office, he frowned and said, "I'd better just take you there."

And so he did, leading us on a ten-minute trek involving long hallways between buildings, an elevator ride, and lots of baffling turns. We thanked him profusely for being so helpful; we never would have found the place on our own!

The man in the eligibility office was similarly kind and obliging, remaining patient and courteous even when Dad -- who was wearing his anti-war button on his hat -- launched into a slightly scatological and deeply anti-Bush joke. "Um, Dad," I said in alarm, "this might not be the best place for that particular joke."

My father laughed. "Oh, I've discovered that this joke always goes over very well at the VA."

The eligibility fellow gave us a tolerant smile and said, "Even though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I always appreciate a good joke."

He got Dad's Philly info transferred into the Reno system, and told us that we had to wait to see a pharmacist on the primary-care team, who'd give us the prescription. But the clerk in the primary-care area told us that the pharamacist was at lunch (it was now 1:00) and would be back at 2:00. We told her that we were going to the canteen to get coffee.

The canteen was near the entrance where we'd parked. We tried to retrace our steps, wishing we'd dropped breadcrumbs behind us, and soon got lost. I saw a courtyard with the building we wanted across the way; stairs led to it, but surely there must be a wheelchair ramp somewhere too?

We went outside to investigate. We didn't find a wheelchair ramp, although we did meet two people with darling teacup service dogs. It was pleasant out there, with flowers and a fountain, so Dad and I decided that I should park him in the shade and go buy him some coffee.

I did that. We sat on a bench in the courtyard, snacking and enjoying the fresh air, and a little before 2:00, we set out for the primary-care waiting area again.

When we got there, the clerk ran to meet us, waving her arms in distress. "The pharmacist came back! She only had one appointment open today, at 1:40! I tried to find you! I sent someone to the canteen to find you! But now it's too late!"

"We were in the courtyard," I told her, touched that she'd gone to all that effort to try to locate us. "Isn't there any way we can get those meds today?"

She frowned and thought for a minute, and then brightened. "Yes, sure. I'll have you go through Urgent Care."

That waiting room looked pretty crowded to me, so we settled in for a good long wait. But Dad's name was called in about ten minutes, and we talked to a very pleasant intake nurse, who told us that we could have gone to the ER this weekend to get the meds. She promised to try to expedite the pharmacy refill, and sure enough, about thirty seconds later, she'd spoken to a doctor and gotten Dad's prescription.

We went to the pharmacy, where we were told that Dad's meds would be ready in about half an hour. In the meantime, Dad wanted a shave, and we'd learned that there was a barber shop next to the entrance where we'd parked. We found our way back there without having to ask too many people for directions.

While Dad was getting his shave, I decided to take his VA card and go pick up his meds, since getting back to the pharmacy was a lot easier without pushing a wheelchair, and since it would be more convenient for Dad to stay close to the car. I didn't see Dad's name on the "your meds are ready" monitor, but I got in the line anyway, to see if maybe they might show up by the time I got to the desk. When I handed Dad's VA card to the pharmacy clerk, I expected to be yelled at for getting in line before our name came up.

Instead, the clerk said, "Let me check on that for you," scanned Dad's card, and said, "That will be ready in about ten minutes." I thanked him and sat down, but Dad's name came up almost immediately, and the clerk handed me the bag with a smile.

When I got back to the barber shop, Dad was sitting outside, clean shaven and beaming. While he was getting his shave, two other men had come in to pass the time. The barber told a joke. Dad told his anti-Bush joke. Everybody laughed. When Dad asked the barber how much the shave was, the barber said, "Don't worry about it; it's taken care of. You told the best joke today."

Of course Dad gave him a nice tip.

On the way home, we couldn't stop talking about how friendly and helpful everyone had been. Dad said that the Gulfport and Philadelphia VAMCs aren't like that, although of course they're also larger. What really stood out for me, and moved me, was how explicit everyone was about the privilege of serving servicemen and women. The eligibility clerk, when the phone rang during our conversation with him, picked it up and said, "I'm serving one of our veterans, so I'll have to put you on hold for five or ten minutes or ask you to call back." The intake nurse at the Urgent Care clinic, when she was telling us how we could have gotten meds for Dad this weekend, said, "That's a service we provide for our veterans."

Maybe this is just rhetoric. When we told Gary about it, he said, "I bet they're doing that as PR after the mess at Walter Reed." But whether it's PR or not, we noticed it, and it impressed both of us. The warmth and flexibility we experienced from everyone there made a fairly tortuous process much pleasanter.

Thank you, Reno VAMC! Keep up the good work!


  1. I'm glad you had a good experience, but I agree with Gary. 17 yrs. ago, the Reno VA would not admit my uncle, who presented with depression and thoughts of suicide because they couldn't find his file. Two days later, he hanged himself. A few years later, they cut my father's eligibility to use services, after having gone out to rural towns two or three years before to sign up any- and everyone who'd ever been in the service (Congress decided to limit VA services to those who had discharged with a disability, something my father had been offered but was too proud to take). The VA folks themselves are mostly hard working, but the institution is totally a pawn of federal government whim and services are cut any time Congress decides to hand out tax cuts to the wealthy.

  2. That's a great story, Susan! I'm so glad to hear about how helpful and friendly everyone at the VA in Reno was. I go to the VA centers here in San Antonio. I've had varying reactions from the eligibility clerks but the most recent visit went very well. When I go and see a doctor they are usually very helpful. But I've spent one horribly long day in urgent care. They insisted on sending me to my own doctor for care instead of just sending me to whoever was available. I'm glad yours went so much better.

    And by the way...just what was that anti-Bush joke? I'm republican but I didn't vote for the man and am having serious concerns about who to vote for this coming election. You can email me the joke if it trips your pc buttons too much to publish it.

    As an old, anti-war hippie, I cheerfully proclaim "Peace!"

  3. It's not just PR. VA Hospitals have been going "out of their way" for years to provide quality customer service.

    And VA hospital staff know well that the current Administration keeps cutting their budget, supporting the troops.

  4. I'm glad you and your dad had a good experience at the VA. I think it's one of the things I really like about working the VA -- most of really do feel honored to be taking care of our veterans, and that attitude makes a difference in the work culture -- I think we are a little less likely to depersonalize our patients.

    The hard part is definitely dealing with the gov'ment B.S. and bureaucracy when it rears its head

  5. Inez -- I'm so sorry about your uncle and father! I'd like to think that it's possible for an institution to improve after more than a decade, though.

    Lee -- Here's the joke. Three surgeons are discussing challenging cases. One says, "I had a patient who lost a leg in an industrial accident. I put him back together, and now he's an Olympic figure skater." The second says, "That's nothing. I had a patient who lost both arms and legs in an auto accident. I put him back together, and now he's an award-winning chef." The third says, "I have both of you beat. I had a cowboy who was riding his horse across some railroad tracks and got hit by a train. All that was left was a horse's a** and a cowboy hat. I put him back together, and now he's the President of the United States."

    Ken -- Yes, I got the impression that the staff try to do their best despite the conditions imposed on them.

  6. Oh, that is a GOOD joke! ROFL! Thanks for sharing it. (G)



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