September 14, 2005
HOUSTON – People who say government moves too slowly have never met the employees of the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MEDVAMC) in Houston.
To deal with the health care issues of the many veterans displaced by Hurricane Katrina now calling Houston home, the MEDVAMC decided to set up a temporary clinic in their 18,000 sq. ft. gymnasium. Like magic, a fully functioning health clinic was assembled in a matter of three days in what was until recently, used by veterans and MEDVAMC staff members for recreation activities. On Thursday, September 8, 2005, the day it opened, the clinic saw 125 veteran outpatients currently living with friends and family or in shelters around the city.
Construction that included building exam rooms, putting up walls, installing plumbing and sinks in each examination room, wiring phones and equipment, and setting up computers went on around the clock until the job was done. Crews were dusting off equipment and painting walls just minutes before patients began arriving.
"Last Tuesday, the clinic was just talk," said J. Kalavar, M.D., director of primary care at the MEDVAMC. "By Thursday it was done." Kalavar admits the first hour was chaotic, but by the second hour, the staff all had their rhythm and operated as any first rate clinic in the city.
To imagine this feat is hard to conceive, especially when you consider that 90 percent of the medical staff working in the new clinic have come in from other VA facilities around the country, never having worked together as a team before. One physician assistant from Anchorage, Alaska was in his cabin ready to go bear hunting when he got the call to head to Houston.
In addition to Alaska, VA health care providers including nurses, social workers, pharmacists, administrative personnel, and health care technicians have arrived from more than 22 different states to help out. Steven Johnson, a medical technician from the New Orleans VA Medical Center, was one of the last to be evacuated from the hospital there. He's now working in the clinic along with other VA employees.
"I'm seeing a lot of familiar patients and it's lifting my spirits to see them and help out. They recognize me, too. I'm still here for them [the veterans] whether it's here or in New Orleans," said Johnson.
The clinic offers primary care, pharmacy, social work, mental health services as well as a laboratory, immunizations, veterans’ benefits advisors, and transportation to and from shelters. The clinic is designed to be fully functional for at least a year. In addition, in order to reach out to displaced veterans and provide assistance with housing, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits, and employment, MEDVAMC outreach coordinators and social workers are working with Houston-area shelters including the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The sign that welcomes veterans at the door of the new clinic says, "New Orleans VA Medical Center, Houston-based Outpatient Clinic." Veterans from the hurricane-affected areas are relieved to see it and know they will have one less thing to worry about.
"This is primary care for New Orleans veterans here in Houston," said Kalavar. "Our major goal is to maintain a level of uninterrupted care for them. We have a critical mission ahead of us and as always, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center continues in its pursuit of the highest quality of health care for our Nation's veterans."
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