Gynecologist Susie Rose meets people at dinner parties, tells them where she works and receives quizzical responses.
“They look at me kind of cross-eyed and say, ‘What do you mean you work at the VA?’ ” Rose said.
Rose is the staff gynecologist at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Male veterans still outnumber women about 10 to 1, but in the post 9/11 era, the number of women veterans has risen steadily, spurring new accommodations for women at the medical center.
Since 2010, the women’s clinic there has added a children’s play area, increased exam rooms from six to eight, installed privacy curtains and acquired gender-specific robes. Patients are still sent to University Hospital for baby deliveries and to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for mammograms, but women can receive all other services, including pre- and postnatal care, at the Wahlen medical center.
Gina Hemma, the women veterans program manager at the Wahlen medical center, said the number of women outpatients is expected to double in the next five years. Yet the Wahlen medical center, and the VA nationwide, is still perceived as a men-only resource.
“I’ve had staff come here and say, ‘We have a women’s clinic?’ Or, ‘Why do we provide maternity care?’ ” Hemma said.
Hemma said the Wahlen medical center will try to recruit more women veterans with a forthcoming billboard campaign that will emphasize its maternity care.
Hemma argues that the Wahlen medical center is ahead of many other VA hospitals in providing care to women. According to the VA’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, 36 VA facilities did not have a full-time gynecologist in 2013. The Wahlen medical center has Rose and five part-time gynecologists and obstetricians.
The women’s clinic also devotes much of its resources to helping veterans with mental health problems. Most of those problems, Hemma said, come from having been victims of sexual assaults. A lesser amount of psychological trauma is the result of combat.
Rose said mental health problems can often manifest as medical issues like headaches and back pain.
“The women are not very trusting,” Rose said. “You have to build that rapport with patients.”
Rose said some trauma victims won’t permit a gynecological exam on their first visit. Rose instead tries to obtain their medical histories and schedule a second appointment when they feel more comfortable.
A bad first visit can be “a deal breaker,” Rose said, and the veteran won’t return.
Noelle Skilton, 48, was in the Army for four years and the Naval Reserve for 12 years. For five of those years in the Naval Reserve, Skilton was a nurse on active duty. Her service included time as a triage nurse at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which received wounded from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Skilton began attending peer groups at the Wahlen medical center in 2010 and receives treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the medical center. She credits the peer groups with providing camaraderie with fellow veterans.
“It’s just getting out and getting back into society, which a lot of us don’t do,” Skilton said of the peer groups.
Skilton is a volunteer at the Wahlen medical center, too, and receives her health care there. Staff at the hospital even call and remind her to get her mammograms, she said.
“Once you’re in, it’s great,” Skilton said of the medical center.
Women veterans in Utah
2010 • 12,766
2013 • 13,483
Projected 2025 • 16,559
Projected 2040 • 18,779
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Trib Talk on Wednesday — Veterans
Despite the recent controversy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are signs that health care for veterans is slowly improving. On Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., former Utah Veterans Affairs Director Terry Schow and Tribune military reporter Nate Carlisle join Jennifer Napier-Pearce to talk about the progress being made for Utah veterans and what’s left to do. sltrib.com