Environment & Hospitality | Diversity Equity and Inclusion

On the Road at the VA Boston Healthcare System

On the Road with VA Boston Healthcare System – November 2023

by Amy Kwiatkowski

In August, our “On the Road” series took me to Boston where I was able to spend time with some of the team at the VA Boston Healthcare System. Boston welcomed me with pouring rain, but the high spirits of those I met, combined with my large coffee, made for a cheerful day. I met with Lisa Alcala, Veteran Experience/Employee Engagement Officer, and Rebecca Weizel, Health System Specialist – Office of the Director, at the VA Boston Healthcare System Jamaica Plain Campus.

I was lucky enough to arrive during their annual employee appreciation picnic. Due to the rain, it had been moved inside, which meant I was able to see plenty of smiling faces up close. The annual employee picnic is a longstanding tradition at VA Boston, and this year involved an updated menu by a new executive chef to keep things fresh.

Meeting the Basic Needs of Women Veterans

The first stop of my tour was with Mary Peak and Damien Powell, Program Specialists for the Center for Development and Civic Engagement. We discussed their Battle Beauties program, a program designed for women veterans to get the clothing they need. It was named Battle Beauties by a veteran who volunteers there.

Mary runs the Battle Beauties program mostly by herself, and it is obvious she has poured her heart into it. Not only does she provide women with clothing, but she stays alert to other needs they may have. If a woman comes to Mary and it is apparent that she needs more than just a coat, Mary helps the Veteran make the connections and takes the necessary steps to ensure the VA is able to meet those additional needs as well.

The Battle Beauties room is full of both new and gently used clothing. Women in need can access the room during business hours without a referral, and they can take any items they need. It is clear this program places the human experience at the center of its operations. It was inspiring to meet with this team and kick off my tour of the VA Boston Healthcare System in the company of such compassionate individuals.

Caring for Women Veterans with Love and Deep Connection

Next, we met with Phyllis Arduino, a Diagnostic Radiology Technician, who works in the Women’s Imaging Center, which provides a safe and private area for women to undergo mammography, bone densitometry, and transvaginal ultrasound.  When asked what it is like to serve women in an organization that primarily serves men, she said “They’re proud to be here along with the men. They’re happy that we’re taking it (the services provided in the center) on.”

Almost immediately, Phyllis told us a patient story that made it clear how much care and compassion she puts into her work. Her patient was 33 years old and had breast cancer. She did not get treatment as soon as she should have because she was focused on caring for her family. When she finally came in for a test, Phyllis was emotionally impacted by her condition. The patient needed to be transported by ambulance for additional care, so Phyllis put some tulips in a vase and gave them to the ambulance driver to give to her patient upon their arrival. Phyllis kept in touch with the patient’s doctor to see how she was doing. After three weeks, she learned the patient had passed away. She ended the story with “I do love my veterans.”

She used this story to explain how she feels when women don’t put themselves first. Phyllis said she feels it is her responsibility to ensure these women are on equal footing in getting the care they need.

When patients come in feeling scared or nervous about their mammogram, Phyllis does her best to encourage them. She tells them, “We’re going to do this together” so they feel less afraid. When patients come to Phyllis, they soon learn they will receive much more than just imaging services. Phyllis has made it a habit to check on patients after she sees them, and she has even visited other VA campuses to make patient bedside visits. Throughout our discussion, it was clear that the women who come through their doors are seen as so much more than just patients.

A Beautiful Clinic Designed for Women

My tour concluded at the beautiful new Women’s Clinic. I met with Carolyn Mason Wholley, the Women Veterans Program Manager. One of the first things I noticed when I stepped foot into this clinic was the empowering images of women veterans and women in the military. Images lined the walls, allowing patients to see themselves represented in the art. In addition to the Women’s Clinic images, Carolyn noted she puts a lot of effort into shifting the culture of the VA Boston Healthcare System to ensure that women are also represented in their service flyers, brochures, and more.

Carolyn explained that when designing the clinic, they focused on privacy. They wanted to ensure that their patients feel as safe and secure as possible, especially due to the high number of patients they see who have experienced trauma. In addition to designing the exam rooms for privacy, they also made sure to choose colors and décor for the rooms that feel calming and elicit positive emotions.

The Women’s Clinic offers primary care, gynecology, clinical pharmacy, behavioral health, rheumatology, social work, and nursing visits. Additionally, they are working on adding nutritional services. They make an effort to do warm handoffs if patients need to see more than one provider, which lowers the potential for additional stress for the patient.

One program they highlighted was “My Life, My Story,” in which trainees interview a patient to learn more about them. While the story is being documented, trainees will enter the information into the patient’s chart, so that anyone who sees the patient can get a better understanding of who they are as a human being. Carolyn explained they have been doing this with their women veterans as a way to say, “These women are here. They belong here. They deserve our respect because they served right alongside their male counterparts.”

The Women’s Clinic focuses on maintaining strong collaboration between all the different services they offer within the clinic and elsewhere in the VA Boston Healthcare System. A great example of this is that they have a separate women’s wing for mental health care where they offer a residential program for women with PTSD and substance use disorders. They can treat patients for both issues simultaneously. They also have a transitional residence where women can continue their outpatient treatment while participating in a work therapy program that serves as a bridge to traditional employment. These are just a few examples of the many ways in which they care for their women veterans.

Proud to be a Woman

My visit to the VA Boston Healthcare System left me feeling proud to be a woman, inspired by the level of care, commitment and dedication of women caring for women. There is a genuine sense of purpose in caring for the brave women who have served this country. It is apparent through their words and actions that the people of the VA Boston Healthcare System view their patients as human beings above all else. Many thanks to the team that took the time to share their meaningful work with me. My hosts reflected the essence of the human experience in healthcare, the tenets of dignity, respect, and equality for all.