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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki greets a patient at the new Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Center at the Syracuse VA Medical Center. Photo: Joanna Richards
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki greets a patient at the new Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Center at the Syracuse VA Medical Center. Photo: Joanna Richards

Syracuse VA hospital marks 60th anniversary

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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was in Syracuse last week, to mark the 60th anniversary of the city's VA Medical Center. He also helped to formally open a new Spinal Cord Injury and Disorder Center.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

Nurse manager Lynne Puzo walks around the Spinal Cord Injury Center's new therapy pool, part of the VA Medical Center's new $90 million facility.

Lynne Puzo, nurse manager for the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Center, says the new therapy pool relieves pain for patients and helps them gain greater range of motion as they recover. Photo: Joanna Richards
Lynne Puzo, nurse manager for the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Center, says the new therapy pool relieves pain for patients and helps them gain greater range of motion as they recover. Photo: Joanna Richards
“So we have the lift, for any patient who can't walk down, and we also have the ramp down there, where some patients can actually sit and then turn around and just slide in,” she explained.

Puzo said this pool is a really important part of rehabilitation – and pain relief – for patients with spinal cord problems.

“When they're in the pool, it's non-weight-bearing, so they're able to relax totally. And it's to help their range of motion – we can get them moving more, loosen up their muscles. A lot of them, it's the only time they feel freedom, because they're tied to a wheelchair.”

Secretary Shinseki helps hospital officials cut the ribbon symbolizing the grand opening of the new spinal cord wing of the Syracuse VA Medical Center. Photo: Joanna Richards
Secretary Shinseki helps hospital officials cut the ribbon symbolizing the grand opening of the new spinal cord wing of the Syracuse VA Medical Center. Photo: Joanna Richards
This unit offers 30 inpatient beds, a dialysis program, new operating rooms, and outpatient services, expanding the hospital's spinal cord clinic into a regional hub for comprehensive care. It's part of a national initiative to supply every VA region with similar facilities to better serve patients closer to home. 

Before this center opened, spinal cord patients in the upstate New York VA region were sent to the Bronx or Cleveland for most specialized care. But hospital officials say patients with these kinds of traumatic injuries and illnesses need a lot of rehab as they transition back into their families and communities. Close proximity to loved ones during that process can be a big boost to patients' physical and mental health.

In a small auditorium in the basement of the hospital, a crowd spilling out into the hallway hushed for the national anthem, played by the 10th Mountain Division Band from Fort Drum.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, flanked by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, speaks to reporters about issues affecting veterans' unemployment in Fowler High School's library, in Syracuse. He had participated in a discussion with veterans, the school's junior ROTC members, veterans' advocates and city officials about how to address the issue. Photo: Joanna Richards
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, flanked by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, speaks to reporters about issues affecting veterans' unemployment in Fowler High School's library, in Syracuse. He had participated in a discussion with veterans, the school's junior ROTC members, veterans' advocates and city officials about how to address the issue. Photo: Joanna Richards
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki gave a keynote address full of praise for the hospital's decades of commitment to veterans' health care. He said the Syracuse facility is a standout among VA hospitals for its high levels of patient satisfaction and leadership in deploying new communications technology. He said these achivements and the new Spinal Cord Injury Center are tangible signs of gratitude by the nation for those who make it home from war – and those who don't.

“The sacrifice of the fallen was enormous and noble,” he said. “Our obligations to care for the living cannot be less so. This gleaming glass, brick, steel edifice housing the SCI Center is an earnest expression of commitment and appreciation by Americans for the service of our SCI veterans.”

After his speech, Shinseki and local VA officials cut the ribbon for the new center and unveiled a large plaque marking the hospital's anniversary. Among the party was a former employee of the hospital who began work here a few weeks after it opened in 1953 – and still volunteers to this day.

While he was in town, Shinseki also took part in a discussion hosted by Mayor Stephanie Miner about how to boost employment rates for returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

The session, held with with local officials, veteran businessmen, and veterans' advocates, was closed to the public, but Shinseki spoke briefly with reporters afterward. He said veterans' discipline, character and leadership skills transfer well to civilian work – and making that clear to employers is crucial to reducing vets' high unemployment rate.

“It's the connection between veterans with skills with employers who have the jobs, and just creating an understanding of what veterans come with,” he said. 

The secretary said Syracuse is a model for collaboration between government, industry, education and nonprofits in addressing veterans' needs. 

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Visit innovationtrail.org.

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