No Longer Just A Man's World

The Memphis VA Medical Center expands its services as more women join the military.

photograph by Andrey Kiselev |

The main floor of the Memphis VA Medical Center is a 
flurry of activity. Fortyish men in baseball caps and blue jeans check in at a waiting room desk while a small group of bearded soldiers in wheelchairs cracks jokes amiably nearby.

Two men in their 30s scan the hallway for a room number while a nurse helps a flannel-clad man with a crutch through an unwieldy door.

But the VA recognizes that its “man cave” days are numbered. As more and more women enlist, participate in active combat roles, and return home from deployment, a new level of healthcare needs is rising.

The changing face of the military has Congress putting its money where its mouth is in order to serve women post-deployment.

“We are more oriented to taking care of male veterans,” says Kaye Borgognoni, Women Veterans Program Manager for the VA Medical Center, Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s just been in the last 15 years that we’ve been seeing women in the VA in general. So we’ve gone from not providing healthcare for women to comprehensive women’s healthcare. That involves everything that a woman would need, hopefully in one visit from one provider, as often as possible.”

The Memphis VA announced a $5.3 million renovation and expansion of its existing Women’s Center, which falls under its department of ambulatory care. Construction, which began in September last year, is expected to be complete in January 2013, and after a brief moving in period,
an open-house and ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held in February.

The expansion will double the 10-year-old center’s space from approximately 5,000 square feet to 10,000. Originally, the center was housed on the ground floor of Building 5, near Poplar Avenue on the VA’s campus in the Medical District. It has been in a temporary location for the last six months.

“The women’s floor was actually on the ground floor,” says Leland Fong,
the primary engineer for the project. “We’re renovating that ground floor space and expanding up into areas that were vacated by other programs.”

Much of the space has been converted into exam rooms designed with women’s healthcare in mind. Not all of the space will be fully utilized at first, but Fong said the remainder will be there as the center grows.

“A lot of this stems from Congress acting on this issue of women veterans’ health,” says Fong. “A bill was introduced in February 2009, HR 1211, to expand and improve healthcare services available to women veterans, especially those serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Borgognoni says that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress monitor the numbers of troops returning from deployment to these and other overseas operations, and budget accordingly for their care.

Last year she attended a conference in Washington, D.C., held by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, at which he affirmed the need to expand women’s healthcare facilities in the VA system across the country.

Now projects like the Memphis VAs are going up nationwide.

“The number of women going into the military is increasing,” says Borgognoni. “As the opportunities increase, more positions open up and there will be more women coming through [to the VA].”

Already the number of women patients at the VA has risen from 3,500 in 2007 to 4,923 currently — more than 6 percent of the total VA population. Borgognoni expects that number to rise to about 10 percent in the next couple of years.

Besides more exam rooms, the Women’s Center will have its own entrance for extra privacy and the check-in area will be separate from the waiting room so that women need not discuss their healthcare issues in a public area.

“A woman does need to have a great deal of privacy when she comes to check in for her appointment,” says Borgognoni. “This is going to be very private.”

The center will also accommodate the needs of families. There will be a play area for children and diaper-changing stations throughout the center with access for both men and women. The Memphis VA has never had either of those facilities before.

Rooms will be equipped with electronic tables that move up and down and ceiling-mounted lifts, which will help raise wheelchair patients or those who have lost some of their mobility.

New staff for the center includes a gynecologist, the VA’s first women’s health psychologist and the VA is actively recruiting another women’s healthcare provider.

Room will be provided for women’s support groups dealing with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Borgognoni says that even conditions that affect men as well tend to be handled differently by women.

Whether female veterans are dealing with cholesterol or a cervical cancer screening, they will be able to seek “one-stop shopping” in the new center, she says.

Women’s health is just one sign of changing times in the military. Body armor for female soldiers has gotten a redesign in recent months, and the military has had to expand its considerations of maternity treatment since 48 percent of women in Operation Enduring Freedom were of child-bearing age.

Now Borgognoni is turning her attention to outreach so that female vets will know that the VA isn’t just a man’s world.

“It’s a priority,” she says.

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