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VA Hospital's $56 Million "Star Wars Center" Almost Ready in Tampa

One of the most modern Department of Veterans' Affairs Hospital Centers in the US is nicknamed the "Star Wars Center."  Spread out over more than 170,000 square feet on two floors, the new Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital is a $56 million project four years in the making.


It was planned after a scandal involving conditions at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and designed to replace Haley’s interim polytrauma center, the busiest of the five in the nation. VA officials say it will capitalize on rapid technological advancements, centralize treatment for troops and veterans who have suffered multiple injuries and accommodate what officials expect will be increasing numbers of patients as people leave the service with lifelong damage.

Built to allow the space to be filled with natural light, its 56 rooms have lift devices, areas for visitors and are laid out in “neighborhoods” with names such as “Valor” and “Courage.” The walls are painted in muted tones undefined antique brick red and saffron and sage. The halls are wider than the current center, with a space in front of each room for patients to spend time in a more communal setting when up to it.

An area called Main Street has six towering freeze-dried palm trees, a coffee shop, rooms for occupational and physical therapy and a two-story therapeutic climbing wall. Just off Main Street is a virtual reality system helping patients adapt to a variety of environments.

In another building is an aquatic center with a 40,000-gallon therapy pool and a much smaller pool with a treadmill floor that goes up and down and variable-speed water flow. Outside in the courtyard, there is a basketball net on a half court, a putting green and varied surfaces to help those using wheelchairs, walkers or canes learn to navigate surfaces such as grass and dirt and brick and gravel.  At 1 p.m. today, officials will show off the new center at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It is expected to begin handling patients in about a month.

“I’m pretty excited.” said Stephen Scott, the hospital chief of physical medicine and the rehabilitation and polytrauma program. “This is a gift from America to those who serve our country. It gives them an environment of hope, compassion and healing that they deserve.”

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The war in Afghanistan is winding down, and U.S. forces are not engaging at the same pace in activities that saw more than 6,700 U.S. troops killed and 51,000 wounded over 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the tidal wave of those who have suffered injuries seen and unseen has yet to crest. Last fiscal year saw a record number of active-duty patients admitted to Haley undefined 281 undefined with the trend through the first quarter of this fiscal year set to eclipse that, according to figures provided by the hospital.  The number of patients admitted to the polytrauma center, active duty and veteran, peaked in the 2012 fiscal year at 132, tapering off to 118 the following year.  Scott said he expects those numbers to go up as more men and women leave the service.

Overall since April 2007, more than 500,000 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans entering the VA health care system have been screened for traumatic brain injury, including more than 53,000 at Haley, according to the hospital. And up to half a million of the 2.5 million who have served since 9/11 may have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the VA.  Aside from being newer and more comfortable, the center will consolidate a wide array of services that now are spread out over a sprawling Haley campus, including the nation’s only in-patient pain clinic.  “This allows us to use advanced technology in rehabilitation,” Scott said. “It puts teams and patients together with the therapies in the same environment.”

To help those with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, emotional stress, sleep disorders, physical pain and other problems as a result of the strains of combat, the center will move its Post-Deployment Rehabilitation and Evaluation Program into the new center, Scott said.  “What we are finding is that most of the individuals are coming back not with just one problem,” said Scott, “but multiple issues.”  There are a couple of reasons why the scheduled end of combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of the year won’t alleviate the pressure on the center, Scott said.

First of all, there are tens of thousands of troops deployed around the world conducting dangerous training. There are commandos active around the globe. And even at bases back home, the military life is hard on the body and mind.  The injuries are not all combat-related, Scott said.  “You see this pipeline of injuries from 13 years of war; statistically only 50 percent of those evacuated at the highest intensity were from combat. When the war goes down, as we have actually seen many times over the years, the noncombat injuries are still there.”

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The center was supposed to open early last year, but construction was delayed. Once excavation began, crews had to pump tons of cement into the ground to stabilize the soil, said hospital spokeswoman Karen Collins. There were additional delays because connecting the new center’s heating and cooling system with the one now serving Haley turned out to be more complex than anticipated, Collins said.

The final price represented a $4 million increase over the original $52 million tab, Collins said.  “Budgets change as technology improves and construction and building materials fluctuate,” she said.  The concept for a new center picked up momentum when investigators began to find problems at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Scott said.

The scandal kicked off by a Washington Post series “raised awareness about the fact that we were treating these war heroes in interim facilities not designed for the care they needed to receive,” Scott said. “That allowed the VA to move forward building more state-of-the-art, more purposeful facilities.”

When it comes online, the new center will have 165 employees, with the same federally mandated nursing staff-patient ratio of 3- or 4-to-1, she said. That figure includes 76 new full-time equivalent positions, including nursing staff being moved over from the medical-surgical team, nutritionists, therapists and cleaning staff.  The new center, which will require congressional approval to be named, is part of a four-phase hospital improvement program that included a new 1,500-car garage and a new bed tower that is awaiting congressional budget approval, Collins said.  “We are extremely grateful to have this facility,” Scott said. “This is a moment in time that is just one of those good moments.”

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