Warrior Partnership Benefits Veterans, Medical Students Alike

MCW Warrior Partnership program
MCW-Milwaukee medical students meet each semester with veterans who share their experiences, which helps the students better understand the unique healthcare needs of veterans.

One afternoon in 2011, three MCW second-year medical students, two veterans and a faculty member met and hashed out a plan to launch the Warrior Partnership, a program they hoped would benefit students and veterans alike. Little did they know how much each group would eventually gain from this effort.

Michael McBride, MDThe Warrior Partnership, led by Michael McBride, MD '92, FEL '97, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at MCW (pictured right), brings veterans and medical students together for mutual benefit: the veterans open up about their experiences and leverage them to teach the students how to care for other veterans, and the students learn how to integrate the unique needs of this population into their care. Now in its fifth year, the partnership has grown from several Vietnam veteran volunteers to about 25 volunteers who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan.

The volunteer veterans visit MCW's Milwaukee campus once a semester to meet with students during four sessions. At each session, the vets discuss their experience during pre-deployment (life before joining the service), their deployment and post-deployment (what it is like to return home to a new world). Students share their medical school and training experiences. Through this dialogue, students become comfortable communicating and interacting with veterans and learning about their unique healthcare needs. The veterans learn how to be more open and comfortable talking to healthcare providers, and help the students expand their knowledge.

"Through this group, my eyes were opened to the fact that the war is not the biggest challenge in life faced by vets," says second-year student Chelsea Kiehl – and one of the Warrior Partnership's current student leaders. "Most of their difficulties and hardships started when they returned home. Whether it be addiction, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, for most of our veterans in the program, the effects of combat are amplified in the civilian life rather than treated and supported sufficiently."

Discussion at the Warrior Partnership event

Veterans and students share their experiences at the Warrior Partnership event

An unanticipated bonus from the program is the strong bond formed between the veterans and the students who participate.

"Not only has this experience provided me with invaluable information as a future physician, but the group also provided me with a second family," adds Kiehl, who is attending MCW on a military scholarship. "The first veteran I was paired with in my group was my first salute at my commissioning ceremony, and has become a role model and mentor. My medical school experience would be drastically different without the men and women who give their time to the Warrior Partnership."

Dr. McBride, a psychiatrist at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center and commander in the United States Navy, was part of the original group that met to plan the Warrior Partnership. Another member of that group was Vietnam veteran Michael Orban, who says he had specific reasons for wanting to start a group like this in Milwaukee.

"I had worked with veterans for about 15 years before, and many told me they weren't able to communicate or connect with their physicians," Orban shares. "We wanted to come up with a way to help veterans play a role in their healthcare and help them feel more comfortable talking with physicians."

Robert Lyons served with the US Army infantry in Afghanistan and currently works at Dryhootch, a coffee shop that offers veterans free access to peer mentor support and information about available healthcare and support. He learned about the Partnership from other veterans who come to Dryhootch, and says that after having participated in the program for two semesters, he plans to continue returning to MCW.

"Veterans can be interesting and unique, and our culture and experiences can be difficult to relate to, and it is important for upcoming physicians to understand this," Lyons says. "The Warrior Partnership is a great opportunity for me to share my experiences and hopefully make another veteran's healthcare easier down the road."

Dryhootch

Dryhootch is a coffee shop that offers veterans free access to peer mentor support and information about available health care and social services. This successful academic-community partnership has received two Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program (HWPP) awards from MCW's Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment, and, in 2014, received national recognition and support in the form of two additional grants to help expand peer mentoring efforts for veterans.

Jeffrey Whittle, MD '84, MPH, a staff physician at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center and MCW professor of medicine (general internal medicine), was the primary investigator of the pilot grant. Zeno Franco, PhD, MCW assistant professor of family and community medicine, is the primary academic partner on the second HWPP grant. Their community partner is Vietnam veteran Robert Curry, who wanted to provide a safe haven for troubled veterans. The name Dryhootch was used because "Dry" refers to the fact that it is free of alcohol or drugs, and "Hootch" is the military term for a hut or other safe place to sleep.

The concept for Dryhootch was based on Dr. Whittle's initial idea of using a patient empowerment approach to hypertension management (which he already was employing), and applying it to mental health to help treat combat veterans.

Monica Stout, MD '15, a family practice resident in the Fox Valley Residency program, was one of the three original MCW students who helped launch the Warrior Partnership; she says the Partnership helped her to better understand how to incorporate the unique experiences of the veterans into their care.

"Every patient comes to us with a story and narrative, and we need to let them tell it," Dr. Stout notes. "This is especially true with veterans who suffer from PTSD and don't like to admit anything is wrong. We need to let them open up and share through their narrative instead of through the regular medical assessment."

Nicholas Jelacic, a second-year MCW medical student and one of the three current student leaders, shares that the experience has been very educational for him as well.

"One of the things people rarely learn in high school and college courses are the problems veterans face when they return home and try to assimilate back into society," says Jelacic, who attends MCW on a military scholarship. "The Warrior Partnership allows medical students to ask questions they may be too scared to ask of veterans they don't know. This allows us to identify aspects of medical care that we can improve on to make the veteran medical experience more enjoyable and worthwhile."

Medical students listen to a veteran discuss his experiences and healthcare needs
Medical students listen to a veteran discuss his experiences and healthcare needs.

Other Warrior Partnership leaders include Gregory Burek, MD, a third-year psychiatry resident and Marine Corps infantry veteran, and Gretchen Floan, a second-year medical student. Active and retired military comprise about 10 percent of the nation's adult population, and more than 65 percent of American physicians receive at least some of their professional training in Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals. Most physicians will provide care for veterans and their families at some point during their professional careers.

Additional information about the Warrior Partnership is available on the Warrior Partnership Facebook page.

MCW's commitment to veterans starts at the top

In addition to supporting the Warrior Partnership and Dryhootch, the Medical College of Wisconsin has a robust commitment to helping veterans through patient care and research. MCW has 112 faculty, 59 staff and three postdoctoral fellows from 13 departments and the Office of Research working at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. Approximately $9 million in research is conducted by MCW faculty at the VA in the areas of motor vehicle safety, spinal cord injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anesthetic agents, osteoarthritis, pulmonary disease, kidney stones, HIV infection, rehabilitation methods after stroke, and many other topics important to human health. The Zablocki VA is one of the busiest and most comprehensive centers operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and all of the physicians there are MCW faculty.

MCW's commitment to veterans starts at the top. Despite his rigorous and hectic schedule, John R. Raymond, Sr., MD, MCW president and CEO and a practicing nephrologist, spends up to one month each summer at the Zablocki VA seeing patients with chronic renal failure, providing consultations, assisting with dialysis and tending to acutely ill patients.

"For seven years early in my career, I was the chief of an exceptionally busy renal section at Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center, and those experiences honed my skills as a physician and forged a lifelong commitment to veterans," said Dr. Raymond, who has been a VA physician for more than three decades. "They have done so much for us through their service in the Armed Forces and are deserving of the best care and treatment we can provide."

– Tony Braza
 

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