Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Visit to VA changes students' perception
Visiting student TouKou Khang was surprised that dental care was among the services offered at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Khang’s surprise at the scope of services offered by VA was shared by other students, as well.
Khang, who completed his undergraduate program at UW-Stevens Point and now is attending UW-Madison to fulfill prerequisites for dental school, was among a group of about 35 students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who recently visited the Milwaukee VA.
“Very different than what I expected,” said Khang, making his first trip to a VA facility. “I got to see what the VA actually did. Before it was just like, ‘Oh, they provide services for Veterans.’ But I didn’t know what type of services. It’s a multi-faceted hospital. There’s dental, there’s social work, mental health. I was actually kind of shocked.”
Initially envisioned as a dental shadowing event and information session, the event quickly grew to include other areas of the medical center.
“For me, I’m really passionate about education, but I’m also passionate about VA having a footprint and an identity in the community,” said Dr. Ankur Patel, Chief of Dental Service at the Milwaukee VA and one of the primary organizers of the event. “We established a relationship last year with UW-Madison through a collaboration with our dental residency programs. But I wanted to expound on that by allowing the college students to come to our VA and see what we do in our setting.”
“Ironically, I was sitting in a discipline-specific committee meeting with all the other educational leaders and I said this was something we were going to do in dental,” he said. “Right after the meeting, about 20 people came up and said, ‘How do we get in on this?’”
As a result, the full-day program included Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Physician Assistant, Speech Language Pathology, Social Work, Nursing, Pharmacy, Radiation Therapy, Nutrition and Food Services, Physical Therapy and Recreation Therapy.
Students attended morning information sessions on any two of the disciplines involved, followed by an afternoon of clinical observation in one area.
“We initially were curious how many students would be interested in learning more about the VA in general, and we got an overwhelmingly positive response,” said Alexis Steinbach, an advisor and lead for Diversity Programming Partnerships with the Center for Pre-Health Advising at UW-Madison. “I think the big draw for students was seeing the variety of disciplines that they could learn from and then the opportunity, as well, to shadow.
Steinbach said the inaugural event was developed to provide students who are traditionally underrepresented in healthcare, including, first-generation college students, underrepresented students of color, and those from rural areas or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, exposure to the VA and a wide range of health-related careers.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity for college students to be able to travel at no cost to them at all to a comprehensive health care facility and be exposed to different information sessions with different fields within the VA,” Steinbach said. “And then also have the opportunity to shadow. It really doesn’t happen.”
For their job shadowing opportunity, three students opted for the recreation therapy unit in the state-of-the-art Spinal Cord Injury Center. Among the activities in which the students participated was a friendly, albeit competitive, game of bocce ball with several Veterans in wheelchairs.
After the game, the students and Veterans engaged in a question and answer session.
Imane Cherif El Farissy asked of the Veterans, “If there was one thing you wanted your physician to know about you, but they didn’t, and you thought that it would improve your quality of care, what would it be?”
One of the Veterans – Mark - mentioned a research study at the Milwaukee VA in which a paralyzed Air Force Veteran was able to walk for the first time in 27 years with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton.
“If they could expand it to the point where I could get an artificial leg and walk again, that would be great,” he said, a response that had a visible impact on the students.
Because most of the students had never visited a VA facility, it provided them with a valuable learning opportunity, said Dr. Jerome Van Ruiswyk, Associate Chief of Staff for Education at the Milwaukee VA.
“Mostly it opened their eyes to what the VA does, what opportunities are here, not just for training, but for their career,” Van Ruiswyk said. “And, hopefully, it will inspire some to eventually come and work for the VA.”