By Ashley Estill
When Dr. Dennis Hollins, Chief of the Rehabilitation Medicine Service at the Charlie Norwood VA in Augusta, GA, had the opportunity to take a group of Vietnam Veterans through his unique rehab unit, he momentarily held his breath. At the conclusion of his tour, he asked the group if they had any questions. “I was nervous because these guys rehabbing had so much done for them and the Vietnam experience was so different,” the doctor recalled. “So I bit the bullet and asked who had questions.”
After, what seemed like an eternity of silence, one veteran in the group finally said, “You know, it’s about time.”
This particular veteran’s comment opened the flood gate and all his brothers in battle started sharing their experiences when they got back. According to Dr. Hollins, they felt that their experiences had taught the nation how to treat heroes today.
“The most gratifying thing is they embraced what was being done for veterans today,” Dr. Hollins said. “Our experiences in Vietnam won this level of care for these soldiers. Instead of feeling angry or resentful, they embraced it.”
In 2003, Dr. Hollins was presented the unique opportunity to create an active duty rehab unit from scratch to help rehab service members coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. After a significant number of service members came back and needed treatment, the VA and Department of Defense realized they needed a facility to provide rehabilitative services for service members coming back from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The solution was to create a rehab center at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. Because they already had a Spinal Cord Unit, they would add equipment and hire a new staff to create the grassroots facility that would not only help active duty service members, but veterans as well, with one all-encompassing program.
The VA agreed to make the additions with a sharing agreement in October 2003, and in February 2004, they took their first patient. What Dr. Hollins refers to as “rehab’s greatest hits” is the amazing staff that runs their facility.
“I have to give the staff a lot of credit because people quit their jobs to get here. Nobody had any idea how long this unit was going to last,” Dr. Hollins said. “It was a leap of faith to me. The neat thing is that everyone who came here wanted to work with active duty soldiers in the VA. They just felt this as something they wanted to be a part of.”
With little to no turnover, Dr. Hollins runs a facility with three inpatient centers: medical rehab; active duty rehab; and a blind rehab center. When new patients entered, in addition to treating physical wounds, each patient was tested for brain injury. When their program was set up, they made sure to have a clinical psychologist on staff because having a heavy mental health component to the center was important.
Since the Active Duty Rehab Unit was the grassroots idea of the military and VA, Dr. Hollins was free to adjust the program as he progressed. Without a rule book to adhere by, they were able to twist and mold the program to best serve the needs of their patients.
“Originally they thought this was going to be an amputee program, so the plan was to have only an amputee component,” Dr. Hollins said. “But we had the mental health background and with my polytrauma background we were able to put together a pretty neat program.”
This program has become the heart and soul of the hospital, providing first-class care for their first-class patients. Dr. Hollins’ program includes a state-of-the-art gym for physical therapy; a pool for aquatic therapy; drivers rehabilitation; blind therapy; and several other networks for therapy including occupational and speech therapy, psychiatry, psychology, neuropsychology, nutrition and social work.
No matter the need, or how severe the injury, the Active Duty Rehab Unit has plenty of tools and people who are eager to help their patients recover and enter the world fully functional and comfortable again.
“This is one of the best groups of rehab people I’ve ever worked with,” said LTC Louise Johnson. “To see the work they do; people rolling in on stretchers and walking out of here has just been great.”
Dr. Hollins was made to do this. With a background in polytrauma and board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, it seems that destiny played a part in bringing him to Augusta. During med school, there were plenty of aspects of medicine he liked, only nothing that fully grabbed him. It wasn’t until one night when he was in the emergency room and saw a woman who came in that suffered a massive stroke. Sustaining serious injuries and in critical condition, it seemed that the woman would not survive. About a month later, Dr. Hollins was rounding the corner and there this woman was, standing in front of him with a walker, in a track suit and new sneakers.
“I was stunned. I’m looking at her and she was so happy and I thought, ‘That’s miraculous,’” said Dr. Hollins. “I thought, ‘what is this?’ I found out that it was the rehab unit; took a tour the next day and that was it. God created rehab for me.”
The passion that Dr. Hollins has is not unique to rehab doctors, but it has played a vital role in creating such a successful program – all with a smile on his face. His optimism and spirit is infectious and visible for all his patients and their families to see.
Julie Brooker has found a temporary home at the Augusta Fisher House while her son Joey, who was in a car accident, is recovering at the hospital and in Dr. Hollins’ care.
“Dr. Hollins is amazing,” Julie said. “You can go to him anytime for anything. Every little thing Joey does, he’s ecstatic about.”
The feeling is mutual according to Dr. Hollins. He knows the value of having a family’s love as medicine and that love serving as a catalyst for recovery.
Kelly Hale is a mother of two, and also staying at the Fisher House while her husband recovers at the hospital. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician, her husband Aaron Hale was working on diffusing an IED in Afghanistan when it suddenly exploded in his face. Lucky to be alive, Aaron has now lost his eyesight and has difficulty hearing. Aaron’s positive attitude and the loving influence of his family has served as his motivation to continue the recovery process.
“Each day is a struggle, but we press on and move forward,” said Kelly. “We’re really eager to move on to the next step in our life.”
Being in the Fisher House allows families to have some normalcy during a difficult time.
“It’s definitely a home away from home,” said Julie, as she sits in a chair and reads in the cozy family room. “We all have our own rooms, but nine times out of 10, we end up in the family room together.”
Kelly, who was sitting near Julie, echoed her sentiments. “We’ve been in five different hotels and it makes such a difference being in the Fisher House. For one, I feel like I have a family. Though we’ve never met each other, we’ve all experienced the same type of heartache. You just feel at home.”
In close proximity to their loved ones, the beautiful 20-suite Fisher House which opened in October 2011, is within eyesight of the hospital, allowing patients the comfort of knowing their family is close by. After sustaining their injuries, their worry is not on themselves, but on their family.
“These guys have been out of the country for eight or nine months and now they’re back. They’re supposed to focus on themselves, but they can’t. They’ve got a spouse, or family, so they’re worried about them,” Dr. Hollins said. “But now, not only do they know where their family is, but they’re in a wonderful place. And it’s walking distance. It’s right here.”
Fueling their rehab, it does Dr. Hollins and his patients such good to know how much support they have. Military people will set up school for the kids, they have a home in the Fisher House – they have all the support they need to relocate their family during this time.
“Having my family here has been monumental,” said Aaron. “Without my wife and kids, I wouldn’t have the motivation. They are the driving force for me to be rehabilitated and continue on.”
Having learned lessons from the past, Dr. Hollins takes pride in his facility that joins together both active duty and Veterans. A mixed population, each group relies on the other for support, encouragement and respect. They all use the same equipment, have the same doctors and receive the same high level of care. Their days are similar, with multiple sessions of therapy from a staff who wants to support them. Embracing the past, Dr. Hollins has created a program that has supported his community incredibly well – something he’s proud of.
“We try to reinforce that our patients may have gone through something horrible, but it was in the service of this higher good,” Dr. Hollins said. “It’s been so effective here because outside society reinforces is. They tell them, ‘We’re proud of you, grateful for you, thank you.’”
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski