As VA hospitals struggle to meet rising demands, the Red Sox Foundation and Mass General have found a way to shore up care for local vets.
IN A PARKING LOT in Washington, DC, in the chill of late February 2008, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner caught up to Larry Ronan, the team internist, as he waited to board the bus. "Larry, I want you to think about what we can do," Werner said.
Behind them stood Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where severely wounded soldiers are first treated upon their return to the States. The Red Sox had just left; the half-hour photo op had turned into a three-hour visit with patients. The visit had lasted so long the team ended up delaying its departing flight back to Fort Myers, where the players were to resume spring training. They were reluctant to step away from the enormity of the sacrifices they had encountered at Walter Reed: the 22-year-old missing both legs who told Dustin Pedroia that Pedroia was his hero because he’d saved a no-hitter for Clay Buchholz; the mother who asked Jason Varitek to sign her son’s glove, the son whose post-traumatic stress disorder kept him trapped in his room for fear of crowds.
Werner had spent the afternoon talking with doctors, learning about traumatic brain injury, a signature condition of the current conflicts: Body armor and swift medical attention may save the lives of soldiers thrown from a bomb blast, but the blast itself is absorbed by the brain, shaking it into a deep concussion and leaving the soldier with everything from depression to long-term memory loss to, perhaps, PTSD. Werner heard, too, about how these patients’ PTSD differs from that of previous wars: With no front line, no zone of safety, no cues allowing soldiers to differentiate friend from enemy, PTSD has found the perfect incubator in Iraq and Afghanistan. Werner listened as doctors explained that 40 percent or more of returning veterans suffer from the nightmares, anxiety, and depression of the disorder.
This was why Werner approached Ronan as the team straggled out of the hospital. And this was why, while in Japan a few weeks later for a first-of-its-kind season opener against the Oakland A’s, Werner asked Ronan what had come of their conversation: "Where is the proposal?" he said. That’s when Ronan knew to make this a priority.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Veterans Affairs has offered widespread healthcare for veterans through its hospitals since 1921 – and has limited almost all care to those hospitals. Today, the VA’s healthcare system treats 5.6 million veterans of all ages nationwide. Massachusetts is part of the VA New England Healthcare System: an integrated organization of 11 medical centers and 39 outpatient clinics in six states. VA Boston alone sees 62,000 patients a year at its West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain medical centers.
And a lot of these vets aren’t happy. "All vets hate the VA. I’m sorry; they do," says Peggy Matthews, an independent veterans’ advocate who helps guide vets through the morass of post-deployment life. Of the 500 vets she’s helped in the past 10 years, "not one," she says, thinks highly of the VA. What her vets