(15) Veterans and VA Hospitals–a good match?

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly:

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


Why doesn’t my spouse want to go to the VA Hospital?

Nothing triggers my husband’s panic attacks faster than a trip to the VA Hospital.

“They hurt me every time,” William reaches down and rubs his ankle that had to be reconstructed three years ago as a result of an injury suffered in Vietnam. He rarely complains of pain.

From waiting room discussions among veterans, I realize anxiety from going to the VA is not a condition unique to my husband. Observing white knuckles, profuse sweating, and grinding jaws, I see that others are more anxious than my husband with a visit to the VA Hospital.

While we all suffer some anxiety at the prospect of being violated at the hands of a health care worker, veterans have a double assault—the trip reminds them of the days, weeks, and maybe months of hospitalization from wounds suffered in war.

Chances are that as family caregivers we may not even know the extent of the suffering our veteran had to endure during his/her service. My husband and I spoke with a 93-year old WWII veteran. He served on the Arizona, rescued by traveling hand-over-hand across a rope extended to his ship from another, as the Arizona went down. The left side of his body, including face and ear, burned. He suffered burns over 65 percent of his body.

“I spent one year in medical care for the burns. It is only by the grace of God that I survived.” He shook his head as he told us his story. “I don’t talk about it because it was such a horrible experience.”

My mother-in-law told me my husband was never shot in Vietnam. I had no reason to ask him about it, as I felt he would tell me if he wanted me to know. When I accompanied him to his pre-surgery appointment one time, the doctor waved his medical file and said, “I see you were shot twice in Vietnam and you still have shrapnel surfacing from your wound sites.” That explained the mystery of the horrific scars I viewed. Years later, I began to hear the stories behind the two injuries and learned of his two Purple Hearts. Until that time, I failed to understand his resistance and apprehension of a visit to the VA Hospital.

Chances are, other veterans have similar backgrounds and chances are, they do not talk about it. In fact, it is likely your veteran has never shared it with you and might not appreciate you raising the subject.

Miss Molly and I work hard like you to make our veteran’s visit to the hospital as easy as possible. Front profile of MollyWe thought it might be helpful to share some of the things we do to make his visit less stressful. I should mention that the VA Hospital we now use works hard to make the veteran’s visit as enjoyable as possible with things like a book exchange, boasting of hundreds of free books offered to the veteran on every floor; coffee, ice water, and snack service; and, a gift shop and market pavilion, offering unique gifts (including war memorabilia).

How do I make my veteran’s trip to the VA Hospital less stressful?

  1. Accompany your veteran on his/her appointment whenever possible. For young caregivers, this may be a problem due to your work schedule but even an occasional attendance may be appreciated.
  2. Pack snacks and water for your veteran. Cottonmouth is common with medications many veterans take. Your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth is embarrassing and inconvenient so the water helps. Snacks are helpful when appointments go longer than expected, which is a common occurrence at VA Hospitals.
  3. Look for the humor in what you see and experience and talk with your veteran about it. A hospital worker told us he found something unusual that morning on his way to work. He claimed a box fell from an ambulance in front of him. He pulled over to get the box out of the road and found a toe inside. He finished his story with, “I bet you can’t guess what I did with the toe?” We never knew if he fabricated the story but he succeeded in putting our day in perspective. As the veterans in line behind us and my husband speculated about what he did with the toe, everyone lightened up and left chuckling. Just an hour later, my husband and I left the elevator and a veteran in a wheelchair stopped the doors from closing to tell my husband his orange shirt did not match his red shorts. People on the elevator held their breath waiting to see my husband’s reaction. My husband, a fashionista, laughed, still in good humor from the toe story. He did not respond with a retort about the man’s purple shirt and turquoise slacks.
  4. Pack something as a distraction for your veteran such as a novel, puzzle book, magazine, or a stack of family pictures.
  5. Keep an extra set of clothing for your veteran in your car. I learned this the hard way when my husband experienced tummy trouble on one visit. The VA Hospitals have clothing rooms that can help if you find yourself in need of a change of clothing; however, gaining access might not be possible unless you can find the right person to help you. The VA will even provide a portable urinal to keep in your car. Many medications make long trips to the hospital uncomfortable for good reason. Having supplies handy can reduce some of the trip anxiety.
  6. Be positive and leave behind your hurt feelings. I imagine this is more difficult than it sounds. I have to put my needs, feelings, and hurt aside in order to help my veteran—especially when going the hospital. I have to remind myself that his rage, anger, or outbursts are not about me—it is about what he suffered while fighting for our country and my freedom. So, toughen up and know that you are not alone!
  7. Bring something fun to share with others while in the waiting room. As a city manager, I found that adults love stickers and toys as much as kids and it was a fun way to tell my employees that I cared about them. The same applies to veterans. I started handing out stickers in the waiting rooms several years ago. I handed my husband an oversized sticker one day and asked him to give it to a veteran, who we had seen on a previous visit—a rather grumpy guy with a walker. William agreed, handing it to him, saying, “My wife said I had to give this to you.” The man took it without any acknowledgement. On our next visit, we saw him again. William talked to him, saying we met him a few weeks earlier and my husband gave him another sticker. The veteran smiled and pointed to his walker. The sticker we had given him before appeared tightly wrapped around the bar of the walker. After that, the three of us became friends, often coming across each other on visits. He said no one had ever talked with him before us. Since then, I always make sure I have plenty of stickers. Now, I am giving out Mollypops, which are Tootsie Pops attached to a card about Miss Molly and this blog. I have not figured out a diabetic friendly Molly treat to hand out. I do not know if the VA would approve of this but so far, veterans and staff seem to enjoy the treats.
  8. Engage veterans in conversation or with a smile. I froze on my first visit to the VA Hospital with William. To say I felt intimidated would understate my feelings. No one smiled or said anything to me the entire visit. After a few more visits, I decided to relax and treat each visit like an adventure. My husband and Ibegan to joke with one another in the elevator and we struck up conversations in waiting rooms. I learned to smile from the moment I walked in to the moment I left. We have met incredible men and women who want someone to talk to. Our lives have changed remarkably–so enriched by meeting heroes, who accepted the call to serve and lost a great deal as a result. While VA trips remain stressful for my veteran, we expect something great to happen each time. We leave after each appointment knowing we did our best to make the life of a veteran a bit more special for one day.

Post your Comments:

Do you do something special to make your veteran’s visits to the VA Hospital less stressful? Please share your tips or advice with us by commenting below.

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her husband, William, and dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.