A Grand Opening Worth Celebration
by Ellen Papadimoulis
September 26, 2011 will long remain a historic date for the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, as blinded veterans and medical center officials cut the ceremonial ribbon on a new residential Blind Rehabilitation Center.
Officially opening for training on August 8, the BRC serves as a regional program within the VA health care system. The first veterans to enroll were from Ohio but others soon followed from states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Like the premier VA program it houses, Cleveland's new BRC is spectacular in design and function. It is located on the ground floor of the medical center and consists of 28,000 square feet of various labs focusing on communications skills, living skills, adaptive cooking skills, manual skills, orientation and mobility, and computer access training. The labs were constructed with low-vision veterans in mind.
Veterans keep busy outside of the BRC classrooms by relaxing on the outdoor patio and dog walk area, or by exercising in the gym. At the end of the day, they retire to one of 15 private bedrooms, complete with a private, wheelchair-accessible bathroom. Guest rooms also include a chest of drawers, armoire, desk, and recliner.
Like other VA residential programs at other BRCs, our purpose and goals in Cleveland include the return of hope, confidence, and independence to visually impaired veterans. Each passes through an individual and intensive rehabilitation experience.
The success of our program and similar ones hinges on a dedicated staff. Blind rehabilitation specialists were hired to come to Cleveland from other BRCs and from private sector organizations such as the Cleveland Sight Center and others throughout the country.
The first four graduates of the Cleveland BRC in early September were all residents of Ohio. Left to right, James Riley of Stow, Ohio; Peter Peci of Cleveland; Ronald Martine of Painesville; and Verle Barribal of Jefferson. Photo courtesy of Ellen Papadimoulis.
Other staff members include a nurse manager, 14 nurses, and a social worker. Medical needs are attended to by a physician and nursing care is provided around the clock. Other essential support staff members include those trained in psychology, nutrition, pharmacy, and recreation therapy.
Rehabilitation begins soon after veterans arrive. Activities include those that teach independent cane travel, Braille, tape recording, typing, cooking, cleaning, organizational systems, woodworking, leather work, gardening, working with power tools, and visual skills using optical aids for remaining sight. In some cases, blinded veterans engage in activities they never did when they could see! The BRC also provides individual and group counseling.
Including family members and loved ones in the rehabilitation process is crucial to success since skills learned in the program can easily be lost if family members do not encourage veterans to use their new skills and have confidence in their independence. For that reason, the BRC offers a family program to learn about sight loss.
The help and emotional support that veterans provide to one another, consistent with BVA's motto "Blinded Veterans Helping Blinded Veterans," are also vital to their rehabilitation. As David Zaritski, one of our blinded vets from Erie County, Ohio, has said, "we're all like family here—we know how it is to be blind, and we know how to help."
Blinded veterans interested in attending the BRC in Cleveland should contact their VIST Coordinator.
Ellen Papadimoulis is the first Chief of the Cleveland Blind Rehabilitation Center. She was one of VA's first original VIST Coordinators and served in that capacity in Cleveland for 32 years