Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons
After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.
The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.
Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.
Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.
It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.
At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.
As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.
It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.
Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.
With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.
“The church is central to my family here.”
She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.
She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.
In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.
The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.
As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.
“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.
On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.
“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The 8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”
In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.
“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”
System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.
“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .
“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”
Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.
“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against. I get my strength from her.”
The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”
Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.
Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..
“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.
In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”
Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.
Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.
“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”
Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.
Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”
It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”
She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.
“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”
Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”
Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.
“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.
“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”
Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.
“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”
The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.
“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”
Things stated out different the second time around.
“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.
“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”
The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.
“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”
In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.
Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:
“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.
“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”
Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.
“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”
Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.
“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”
The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.
“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.
It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.
Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”
Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.
Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.
“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.
“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”
Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.
Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.
“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.
“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”
She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.
Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.
“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”
Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.
Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”
The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.
In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”
She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.
“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”
Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.
Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”
Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.
- Agencies work to unite foster, biological parents (miamiherald.com)
- Wanted: Parents willing to take in children (newsherald.com)
- SPITZ: From foster to forever family (metrowestdailynews.com)
- Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kinship Celebration Brings Together Community in Support of National Adoption Awareness Month (virtual-strategy.com)
Here is what I hope you find to be a touching and inspiring piece about Budge Porter, a one-time Husker football player left paralyzed after tackling a teammate in a spring practice but despite overwhelming physical challenges his friendly demeanor and positive outlook on life have never left him. Recently, Budge, his wife, and their two children were the beneficiaries of a campaign to raise funds for a totally barrier-free home that will accommodate Budge and his special needs without looking in the least institutional. That customized adaptive, accesssible home is nearly complete and the Porters are very close to moving in and enjoying it. Led by local builder Brad Brown, the Budge Porter Project is entirely dependent on donations, of which there have been many, and now Budge hopes he can help others similarly afflicted like him find the resources they need to ease the burdens in their lives. My story is in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine.
Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine
Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.
What he’s never lost is determination and, remarkably, a positive outlook. It’s what helped him build a successful stockbroker career, woo and marry his college sweetheart and start a family when many doubted he could do those things. He and his wife Diane are parents to three children.
His will has continued carrying him through recent setbacks.
“Every step of our lives we’ve been told this can’t be done,” says Budge. “We have the character between the two of us, working together with great friends and family, to beat all those odds…”
“Disappointments are not foreign to us,” Diane says. “There were many hopeless feelings and times of despair through all this, but I think so often what’s saved us is that you get to the point where you’re either going to laugh or cry and we’ve chosen always to laugh. You kind of know in your heart of hearts it’s always going to work out and it always does. It’s like you’ve got to throw it up to God or whatever and just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to work out and we will survive.’”
That indefatigable spirit is what’s motivated friends and well-wishers to build a completely barrier-free home for this never-say-die warrior and his family. The non-profit Budge Porter Project is a volunteer, donation-fueled effort led by Omaha home designer-builder Brad Brown, whose Archistructure has supervised construction of the pottery barn or rustic ranch style home at 13522 Corby Street.
“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him,” says Brown. “You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity. I don”t think it started off that way but it’s led him to a sense of inner peace.
“He’s a very open and caring person. When you’re around him you feel like a breath of fresh air.”
The 1,900-plus square foot home includes an elevator, a therapy pool, a tracking-lift system, ramps and various features built at wheelchair level and wherever possible, subtle and aesthetically pleasing. Those are big-ticket items the Porters could never afford themselves, but donations in excess of $120,000 have purchased them.
Subcontractors and suppliers have given time and materials. Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces owner Sam Marchese donated all the cabinets and countertops. He also co-signed Porter’s home loan and hosted an August 15 fundraiser.
Steve Reeder gifted the lot.
Accepting help doesn’t come easy for Porter, who hails from a long line of orchard and farm owners. They’re a tough, independent lot. His father and grandfather both played at Nebraska. When Budge and brother Scott carried on the football legacy there, the school had its first and only three generation athletic family.
“He feels somewhat embarrassed and undeserving,” says Brown, “because he’s always made it on his own. I told him, ‘This is a hand-up, not a hand-out and it’s something these guys are tickled to give back.’ It makes us all feel so good.”
To customize the home to Budge’s specific needs Brown had to ask personal questions and view Budge in intimate situations. Diane says Kent Pavelka’s public relations company made a video documenting what Budge contends with daily.
“I looked at Kent and Sam and Brad and they were all crying,” says Diane. “They didn’t realize what the simple act of getting in and out of bed is for Budge. He’s so good about downplaying all the stuff that goes with his injury and he doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him. But I’ve often said if people really knew what it takes to be him every day it’d be very hard to keep positive because it’s exhausting. A lesser man would not handle it as well as he has.”
The experience gave Brown a deeper appreciation for Budge’s “courage” and bonded the two men even more.
“We were really good friends but we’re definitely brothers now,” says Budge.
The Porters have always managed dealing with the challenges of paralysis but then Budge lost big in the 2000 stock market crash, which also cost him many clients similarly hard hit. Osteoporosis forced him to retire in his mid-50s and go on disability.
A stretch of the Papio Creek behind the family’s previous home eroded, causing such severe damage to the property the home’s value plummeted. Health scares resulted in long, expensive hospitalizations. Finally, Budge swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy. The family gave up their home. Getting a loan and finding a new place to live proved daunting.
It seemed like more than one family could bear.
“I don’t like to make excuses,” Budge says.
He’s heartened by how others have responded to their plight.
“We’ll never be able to repay all these people other than just to tell them we’re forever grateful. We’re rich beyond compare with friends. We intend to be good stewards of these benefits.”
Budge views the home as “a legacy” for Diane and the kids when he’s gone.
He hopes to inspire and assist others through the Budge Porter Project.
“I would love to see us form a foundation to raise future monies to help others in need along these same lines. There’s a lot of people far worse off than us and we feel for them and pray for them and we just hope they’re as fortunate someday to have the type of friends we’re blessed with to give them a hand.”
For those of you wondering if all I ever write about is Alexander Payne, here’s a story that shows what I’m capable of outside the whole filmmaking and arts-culture arena. It’s a profile of Iraq war veteran Jacob Hausman, a native Nebraskan whose battle with PTSD I chronicle. Thankfully, Jake’s found peace with the help of counseling, prescription drugs, friends, and a lot of work on himself. The extensive profile is the cover story in the current Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine, whose editors graciously alloted a 12-page layout, which is almost unheard of these days. Thanks to Jake for sharing his story. It’s my privilege to share it with all of you.
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine
One Man’s Journey into War
Growing up in Beatrice, Neb. Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing the rite of passage known as basic training he finally realized his long-held dream. He made it as an infantryman, too, meaning he’d joined the “hardcore” ranks of the all-guts-and-no-glory grunts who do the dirty work of war on the ground.
By the time his enlistment ended three years later Hausman earned a combat service badge during a year’s deployment in Iraq. He participated in scores of successful missions targeting enemy forces. He saw comrades in arms, some of them close friends, die or incur life-threatening wounds. He survived but there were things he saw and did he couldn’t get out of his mind. Physical and emotional battle scars began negatively impacting his quality of life back home.
Headaches. Ringing in the ears. Dizziness. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Irritability. Depression. Anxiety. Certain sounds bothered him. He felt perpetually on edge and on high alert, as if still patrolling the hostile streets of Mosul or Fallujah. With his fight or flight response system stuck in overdrive, he slept only fitfully.
A relationship he started with a woman ended badly. He lived in his parents’ basement, unemployed, isolating himself except for beer-soaked nights out that saw him drink to oblivion in order to escape or numb the anguish he felt inside. No one but his fellow vets knew the full extent of his misery.
With things careening out of control Hausman sought professional help. Hardly to his own surprise, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone who’s endured trauma is prone to develop it. Sustained exposure to combat makes soldiers particularly vulnerable. Not all combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD but nearly a third are.
What did surprise Hausman was learning he’d suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TIB). In retrospect, it made sense because the Stryker combat vehicle he was in absorbed an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast that knocked him unconscious. Studies confirm ever stronger charges like that one caused many more such injuries as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. Injuries of this type often went undetected or unreported in the past.
So it was Hausman became a casualty among returning veterans. Some estimates put their numbers with PTSD and/or TIB at a quarter of a million. Statistics alone don’t tell the story. In each case an individual experiences disruptive symptoms that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. The suicide rate among this group is high.
The scope of this health care crisis has strained VA resources. In some locales benefit claims are months behind schedule. Nebraska’s VA system has largely kept pace with demand. Hausman’s own claim was expedited quickly. He was found to be 90 percent disabled.
Six years after starting a VA treatment regimen of counseling and medication to address his PTSD issues, along with physical therapy to mitigate his TBI symptoms, his life’s turned around. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bellevue University. He’s gainfully employed today as a veterans service representative at the Lincoln VA. He also does outreach work with vets. He recently married the former Kendra Koch of Beatrice and the couple reside in a home in Papiliion.
They adopted a Lab-Golden Retriever mixed dog, Lucy, from a rescue animal shelter. Kendra’s an animal lover like Jacob, who with his mother Gayla Hausman and his friend Matthew Brase own and operate the foundation Voice for Companion Animals.
Throughout his active duty Army tenure Jake carried inside his kevlar helmet a photo of his favorite adolescent companion, a chihuahua named Pepe. Not long after Jake’s return from Iraq the dog took sick and had to be put down.
Jacob and Kendra are seriously considering starting a family.
Emotional and physical challenges persist for him but he has tools to manage them. No longer stuck in the past, he lives one day at a time to his fullest and looks ahead to realizing some dreams. Contentment seemed impossible when he was in the depths of his malaise. His is only one man’s story, but his recovery illustrates PTSD and TBI need not permanently debilitate someone.
He’s certainly not the same Jake Hausman who joined the Army a decade ago. “I came back a completely different person. I had so much life experience,” he says. Good and bad. If nothing else, it matured him. His views on the military and war have changed. He’s not bitter, but he is wizened beyond his 28 years and he wants people to know just how personal and final the cost of waging war is. He also wants fellow vets to know the VA is their friend.
Like a lot of young people, he had a romantic view of soldiering. He saw it as a ticket out of his small town to find thrills and see the world.
“People live in Beatrice for a hundred years. It’s like my grandpa lived here, my mom lived here, and I’m going to live here, and I didn’t want that for myself. I struggled at school, I didn’t succeed, I was in trouble with the law, I didn’t have a bright future. And the Army at least promised adventure, intrigue. I just thought, Gosh, I want to be part of a story that can be told from generations to generations. I wanted to be part of something greater than myself.
“I didn’t feel connected (before). I mean, I was social, I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and I really craved that. I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and that (the infantry) really gave it to me.”
You might assume the catalyst for his enlistment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you’d be wrong. Long before then he’d made up his mind he would enlist as soon as he could. He wanted it so bad that he was only 17 when the Army took him with his parents’ written consent. He completed high school early.
“Since I was like 5 years-old I wanted to be a part of the infantry. My mom’s father was in the infantry during the Korean War, and that’s why I ultimately joined. So I was always allured by the infantry because they’re the hardest, the best, the whole thing. I was beyond motivated.
“The struggle, the fight, well that’s all true.You actually get to experience those things and it’s not pretty and glorified. What I always tell people is that in combat and war no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate, it’s pure survival instincts, and when you’re in those situations you’re not doing it for the flag you’re doing it for your friend to the left and right of you.”
He couldn’t know the hard realities of war before experiencing it. He only thought about the excitement, the camaraderie, the tradition.
“Well, I got all those things, and I got a little bit more than I bargained for.”
You’re in the Army Now
His service almost got shelved before getting started. Weeks before leaving for basic training he was behind the wheel of his car as friends imbibed from open alcohol containers when Beatrice police pulled them over. Already on probation for underage drinking violations, Hausman “freaked out” and fled the scene. He later turned himself in. Authorities could have used the pending charges to prevent him from going in the Army. A probation officer became his advocate.
“She went above and beyond for me,” he says. “She saw something in me and just really pushed for me and got it dropped. Two weeks later I left (for basic). About three years later when I came back I told her what that meant to me and who I am now because of it. If it wasn’t for her this story would have never happened.”
So off he went for the adventure of his life. Rude awakenings came early and often at Fort Benning, Ga. for this “spoiled only-child” who’d never done his own laundry.
“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.”
Mental and physical toughness are required of infantrymen and he had no choice but to steel himself for its rigors.
“You adapt fast or you suffer,” he says, “and I was one who adapted fast. The infantry is so hard. There’a lot of hazing. It’s survival of the fittest.”
Hazing and all, he says, “I thought basic training was the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why it was powerful for me is that it was all about the mission, there was no individualism, we we’re all a team. I really loved that.
“My master’s is in leadership, where the focus is on what can you do for the team, and that’s what the infantry is. No matter if you show up with a shaved head or dreadlocks, you get your head shaved. No matter if you’re clean shaved or you have a beard, you get your face shaved. It’s just part of it. They strip you down to your very bare minimum and it’s all about coming together as a team, being a man, learning how to get along with others and learning different cultures.
“You’re talking about someone who as a kid had one black person in his class and now I had blacks, Hispanics, Jamaicans in my barracks. I’d never dealt with that. I learned so much from other people, it was fantastic. They treated me like everyone else, I treated them like everyone else.”
Infantry training is largely about endurance.
“The whole infantry thing is walking and running while carrying a 50 to 75 pound rucksack,” he says. “Can you walk a long ways with all that weight?”
Before making it into the infantry, one must pass a final crucible. Hausman recalls it this way: “They have this legendary walk that’s like 25 miles of water, hills and so forth. It’s like your final capstone test at the very end. You know you’re an infantryman if you pass this thing. It’s hell on earth. I had to duck tape my thighs so they wouldn’t rub together. You walk through a river and your feet are wet. One entire foot was rubbed raw. I mean, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.
“It’s just a whole mental thing – can you get through the pain? It was so great getting that done. I was so proud.”
He then joined his unit in Fort Lewis, Wash. to await deployment. He says everything there was even more intense than at Fort Benning – the training, the hazing, the brotherhood, the partying. He felt he’d truly found his calling.
“I became very good at being an infantryman. You really felt a part of the team, you bonded. I mean, you just had a lot of brothers.”
He says the drills he and his mates did in the field, including playing realistic war games, made them into a cohesive fighting force.
“We were a killing machine.”
A downside to barracks life, he says, is all the alcohol consumption. “Drinking is the culture, I’m talking excessively. In the military you’re drinking hard liquor and you’re just drinking till you curl up. That’s the path that started going bad for me there.” But a substance abuse problem was the least of his worries once in Iraq in 2003.
His company was assigned to the new Stryker Brigade, which took its name from the 8-wheel Stryker combat vehicle. “Something in-between a Humvee and a tank,” Hausman describes it. “After Somalia our brass decided we needed a vehicle which could put infantry in the city, let us do our thing, and get us out fast.”
It carried a crew of six.
“We built cages (of slat armor) on the outside to stop RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).” The cages proved quite effective. However, Strykers had a problem with rollovers, a defect Hausman would soon experience to his horror.
“We had a lot of good intelligence from special forces initially. Every day we would kick someone’s door down and take out a terrorist. We’d either arrest him, kill him, do whatever. We killed a lot of bad guys.
“Once the intelligence stopped we kind of ran out of operations to do.”
Then his squad’s duty consisted of doing presence patrols “It basically was to show the Iraqis we were around, but in all reality it was walk around until we got shot at so we could kill people.”
Draw fire, identify target, engage.
Hausman was a specialist as the squad designated marksman. “I had an extra weapon – a snipe rifle. I’d go out with the snipers and we’d do recon on special missions,” he explains. “We’d take fire here and there but we’d maybe only get in a firefight every three weeks.”
He was part of a Quick Reaction Force unit that responded within minutes to crises in the field. That sometimes meant coming back from a long operation only to have to go right back out without any sleep.
“Once, we got into an 18-hour firefight when we were called to secure two HET vehicles hit by RPGs and abandoned by their transportation team. It was a residential district in Mosul. We got there and RPGs start blasting and IEDs started popping. It was just an ambush. The enemy had us surrounded 360 degrees . We were pinned down taking gunfire. This was life or death. At a certain point you’re not thinking, it’s pure survival animal instinct.
“I turned the corner at a T-intersection and there were muzzle flashes from windows. There were four of us versus about six muzzle flashes. It was just who could kill who fastest. A guy came across the roof and I fired my 203 grenade launcher, BOOM, dead. A squad member got shot and paralyzed. Another got wounded by an RPG, his intestines spilling out. He was EVACd out.”
He says in situations like these you confront the question: “Are you really committed to killing another human being? And I have killed another person.” Despite today’s automatic weapons, he says, “you’re still seeing a human being face-to-face, you’re still pulling a trigger on someone, you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.”
In the aftermath of such intense action, he says, “you’re hiked up, you can’t sleep.” Indeed, he “couldn’t let down” for his entire nine months in Iraq. “You just can’t let your guard down.” Even on leave back home he was so conditioned by threats that “driving back from the airport,” he recalls, “I was looking for IEDs on the road, scanning the roofs for snipers.” When he could finally release the pent-up stress he slept three straight days.
A Tragic Accident
As bad as firefights got he says “the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life occurred about a month after I got to Iraq.” It didn’t involve a single gunshot or explosion either. It was his turn operating the Stryker. His team, followed by another in a second Stryker, were on a muddy backroad near Sumatra heading to do recon. A ravine on their side of the road led to a canal. Suddenly, the road gave way and both Strykers overturned into the canal. The ensuing struggle haunts him still.
“We’re upside down, water starts running in, it’s miserable cold. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s over.’”
He recalls hearing his father’s voice telling him not to panic.
“I don’t know how I got the hatch open, I just muscled it and the water rushed in. I took a deep breath and went down in it. My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, Is this how I’m going to die?
I escaped from the bottom somehow and got on the side.”
Only to find himself trapped again. He began swallowing water.
“I looked up and I could kind of see the moon. I started clawing, clawing, clawing and gasping for air. I made it. I gathered my thoughts, climbed on the vehicle, and saw one of my buddies had gotten flung out .We went to the back,” where they found their mates trapped below, desperate for escape. “We were all fighting to get the hatch open. It was just terrible. We get the hatch open and everyone’s there.”
A roll-call accounted for all hands. Except in the rush to get out a team member got “trampled over” and drowned.
“We got his body out and did CPR but it was five minutes too late.”
Hausman was “really good friends” with the victim, Joseph Blickenstaff.
The driver and squad leader in the second vehicle also died. Hausman was friends with the driver, J. Riverea Wesley. Staff sergeant Steven H. Bridges was the squad leader lost that day.
Assessing what happened, Hausman says, “It was chaos, it was tragedy. That really shattered me for a while. I won’t let it ruin my life, I’ll go swimming and stuff, but it was just traumatic. It is hard to deal with – getting over it. There’s some parts of it I will never get over.”
The Aftermath Comes Home
War being war, there’s no time or support for processing tragedy and trauma. “It was shove everything inside, shut up, move forward,” says Jake. Those unresolved feelings came tumbling out like an “avalanche” when he got back home in 2004.
“I was just a train wreck. I was miserable, destroyed. My emotions ran wild. I couldn’t sleep. I was just so anxious. I couldn’t take deep breaths, I would sniff, just like a dog panting. Like a 24-hour panic attack. You’re uncomfortable being you every second of the day. You’re not in control and that’s what you’re afraid of. Just freaking out about stuff. I was so afraid at night I would get up nine or 10 times and check the lock on my door. The nightmares are incredible.”
Excessive drinking became his coping mechanism. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink to keep his demons at bay.
“You’re in a vicious cycle and you can’t get out of it,” he says.
“At one point I contemplated suicide because I was like, What is the point of living when I am this bad, this miserable? Is it ever going to get better than this?”
His family saw him unraveling.
“Mom and dad were worried, deathly worried, but they didn’t know how to handle it. They didn’t know if it was a stage or my turning 21. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
“Usually in this population patients turn to drinking or to other substance abuse and the number one reason they tell me they do it is because they can’t sleep or to fight off nightmares,” says Omaha VA social worker Heather Bojanski. “They don’t want to come in for help, they don’t want medication, and drugs and alcohol are easy to get a hold of. They’d rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face there is a problem.”
Jim Rose, a meant health physician’s assistant with the Lincoln VA, says recovery has to start with someone recognizing they have a problem and wanting to deal with it. “If they’re still reluctant to accept that as a problem then it makes it very difficult. Help’s out there but it is difficult with this group who by nature tend to be more self-reliant and have the world by the shoulders, and then to have something like this happen kind of turns things upside down.”
There’s no set timetable for when PTSD might present in someone.
“They’re all on a continuum,” says Bojanski. “Two veterans can come back who have seen and been through the same exact thing and one will seem perfectly fine and the other may immediately start struggling. That all depends on a few things – what was going on in their life when they came back, how much family support they have. It’s all going to depend on them and their family and what’s going on and how honest they are with themselves.
“If they come back and they have great family support and their family’s in tune and really watching them, then they’ll do well. But if nobody’s really paying attention and they’re just doing their own thing and they start isolating and drinking, then those are big issues to look at and people really need to encourage them to come in.”
Hausman says, “There’s a threshold of stress. It’s going to come out eventually if you don’t take care of it. For me it came out real early. I was a boy, I was not equipped for getting used up in the war machine.”
Rose says PTSD tends to be suppressed among active duty military because they’re in a protective environment around people with similar experiences. But once separated from the military it becomes a different matter.
“They feel isolated and the symptoms will probably intensify,” he says. “It’s usually a couple years after discharge people reach a point where they just can’t cope with it anymore and something’s going to happen – they’re going to get in trouble or they’re going to ask for help, and that’s when we see them.”
That’s how it was for Hausman, who concealed the extent of his problems from family and friends and tried coping alone.
“I didn’t want to burden them with that, My friends, they thought it was just old Jake because I’m a partier, I’m gregarious, so they enjoyed it. But they didn’t see the dark side of it. They didn’t understand the mega depression and anxiety. When I was drunk I could shield it.
“But there’s usually one of two people in your life that know you. Robert Engel is probably my best friend to this today. He was in my unit. He lives in Kansas City (Mo.).He recognizes when I’m down, I recognize when he’s down. We kind of pick each other up. He’s seen me at my lowest point but he accepts me for who I am and I accept him for who he is and we sincerely care about each other.”
“When I decided I wasn’t going to kill himself I resolved to figure this out,” says Jake. “I started reading spirituality, I started studying psychology.”
Most importantly, he sought help from the Veterans Administration. He and a fellow vet in Lincoln, Mike Krause, talked straight about what he needed to do. Like any vet seeking services Hausman underwent screenings. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD.
The intake process works the same for all vets.
Bojanski says, “We sit down with each of them individually and decide what level of care they need.” In the case of Hausman, she says, “He came to the VA and we started to treat him and then when he started to take medication he stopped drinking and it was like an eye opening experience to him that, Oh my God, I’ve been suffering all this time. He started to go to groups, he talked to other people and realized, Wow, I’m not the only one suffering. Other people he knew from his unit were going.”
Rose says the medications commonly prescribed for PTSD are “a mixed bag” in terms of effectiveness. He emphasizes “there is no medication that cures these symptoms, but we have got things that can help people lead better lives, including anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.” To supplement the meds he says “we try to steer people to cognitive therapy counseling.”
A holistic mind-body-spirit approach has worked for Hausman.
“That’s why exercise is important, counseling is important, and you have to supplement it with medication,” he says. “It’s not just a one trick pony, you can’t just throw some meds at someone and expect them to get better, you have to do all those things.”
Rose salutes Hausman and anyone who embraces recovery. “It’s a fairly lengthy process and it involves commitment. It’s not a passive act. Jake’s a testament to people that if you really want to get through it you can.”
Lincoln VA substance abuse counselor Mary Ann Thompson admires him for getting sober and “remaining clean and sober and productive.”
Bojanski sees a new Jake, saying, “He has a much better outlook on life. He’s very proactive.”
More than most, Kendra Hausman appreciates how far her husband’s come: “I’ve seen a lot less anxiety. Overall, he’s more calm, more level-headed, he’s able to handle situations better. He doesn’t get as angry or as worked up about small things like he used to. He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now but I’m so proud of him for moving forward. He’s very determined. Once he puts his mind to doing something he’ll get it done no matter what. He’ll figure out what he needs to do, just like he did with his school and career.”
Jake himself says, “I’ve come a long ways. Life us so much better.” What he’s realized, he says, is “there are just some things you cannot willpower, you just have to get help from people. I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me. And that’s what I’ve learned -– you have to ask for help, you have to be willing to get help. The VA is there to help people. They’ve helped me so many times.”
Bojanski says the VA’s more responsive to veterans’ needs today.
“The VA realized we did a lousy job welcoming Vietnam veterans back home, so when this war started we wanted to be proactive and make sure we welcomed our veterans home. We didn’t want them to have a stigma with mental health, we wanted to make sure everything was in place. So we created these clinics (OEF or Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom or OIE) where we work very hard with veterans. It’s very confidential, so not everybody in their unit is going to find out. We have an ER open 24 hours a day.
“It’s not like it used to be when you just had to soldier on or if you reached out for help it wasn’t confidential.”
She says there isn’t as much stigma now about seeking mental health care.
“It’s getting better, we’re still not where we need to be, but I will say the armed forces, the Department of Defense and our population in general are changing their views about that. We also do a lot of outreach, a lot of speaking to communities to make sure people are aware it’s OK to get help.”
Hausman does outreach himself as a way of giving back. He says when he addresses audiences of freshly returned vets he commands their attention.
“They believe in me because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m working for the VA. I’m 90 percent service connected, I’ve got a combat infantry badge. Seeing them is like seeing my reflection. I’m motivated to get them right before they take the wrong path. Someone got me over the hump and I want to get them to that point, too. I want to help veterans get the services they need. It’s just so rewarding.”
The War that Never Ends, Moving on with Life
His PTSD still flare-ups now and then.
“Recently I had a little struggle for a while but I didn’t fall back into the past because I’ve got good people in my life today.” He says he has combat veteran friends who still struggle because “they don’t have the support system.”
He accepts the fact he’ll always be dealing with the effects of war.
“There are some things I would change but it’s made me who I am even with all the disabilities and struggles and everything I face. I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace. There’s some breaking points where you feel sorry for yourself and you have little pity parties but then again I look around me and see what I have – a great support system, a wonderful wife. It’s made me stronger.”
Finding Kendra, who works as a speech pathologist with the Omaha Public Schools, has been a gift.
“She is the light of my life, she changed my life. Her enthusiasm for life is just breathtaking. She’s smart, beautiful, loving. She’s the greatest teacher in my life. She doesn’t need to understand everything I go through but sometimes I need her to help me get through it.
“I was going through a low point and she said something to me that no one else could say to me without offending me: ‘You got through war, now you can get through this, so suck it up.’ From her that meant a lot. She knows me at that fundamental level to tell me what I need to hear sometimes.
“We’re really good together.”
Flareups or not, Jake’s moving on with life and not looking back.
If you have a concern about a veteran or want more information, call 402-995-4149. The VA’s local crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. For the latest findings on PTSD, visit http://www.ptsd.va.gov/aboutface.
- 2012 Looking Up for Veterans With PTSD and TBI When Facing Charges in the Criminal Courts (prweb.com)
- Army Surgeon Shares PTSD Struggles to Help Others (defense.gov)
- DoD and VA to Fund $100 Million PTSD and TBI Study (thecommunicatorwv.wordpress.com)
- Battling PTSD and TBI (nation.time.com)
- The Military’s PTSD Problem (thedailybeast.com)
- Treating PTSD and TBI…Ethically (fightingptsd.org)
Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news. This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions. It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities. Of course, much good is done as well. But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.
From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.
After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.
A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”
Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”
Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”
Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”
Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.
As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.
According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”
While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”
- Suicidal veterans may not be getting help they need (pri.org)
- Disabled vets increasingly cheated by fund managers (sfgate.com)
- Inspector General Report: VA Understates Delays In Handling Veterans’ Mental Health Claims (theveteransdisabilitylawfirm.com)
- Bill proposed to change PTSD military programs (thenewstribune.com)
Here’s a story I did a couple years ago or so about an Omaha theater stalwart, Lara Marsh, who’s touched many people with her winning personality and generous spirit and those good vibes and works have come back to her ten fold as she battles cystic fibrosis and faces the prospect of a double lung transplant. This story appeared on the eve of a fundraiser for her, one of many such events that the local theater community has organized on her behalf.
Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Got Oxygen? This question on top of Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet is very funny and ironic at the same time. I immediately bought a T-shirt and the expression always makes me smile. But this question, in Omaha at 936 feet, somehow loses all its humor.”
Cystic Fibrosis survivor Lara Marsh in her online journal/blog
Veteran Omaha stage manager Lara Marsh is in a fight for her life with Cystic Fibrosis. The inherited, chronic disease produces a thick, sticky mucus that impairs the respiratory and digestive systems. She needs $55,000 to get the double lung transplant required for her only chance at anything like a normal life span. She’s already exceeded CF life expectancies.
“When I was 4 the doctors told my parents I would never see 5. When I was 5, I wasn’t supposed to make it past 8. At 8, the average life expectancy was 14. The average death age for a female now is 37, and I’m 39, so I’ve done really well, but for me it’s unacceptable to die that young.”
Her sister Amy had her life cut short by CF at 18. By contrast, Lara’s married and the step mother of five children. She travels. She’s a college graduate (University of Nebraska at Omaha). She enjoys a career as Nebraska Theatre Caravan Artistic Coordinator/Apprentice Coordinator at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where she also stage manages. She’s beaten the odds. She also can’t recall when illness was not part of her life.
“It doesn’t define me and yet it’s made me a big part of who I am. It’s just all I remember. I am very much a positive person always striving for goals,” she said. “I remember as a small child joking but not really joking with my doctor, ‘You can’t retire until I die because I’m going to be the oldest living CFer in the world.’
Of course, the older you get reality comes into play, seeing the progression of the disease, knowing where I’m really at compared to where I wish I was at. Another whole side of this is the pride factor of showing people I’m a human being dealing with this. I don’t like to show the negativity, I don’t like to show the weakness.”
Lara’s lately revealed more about living with the disease via campaigns raising funds for her transplant needs. Her thespian peers, along with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, have organized Places, Please! benefits at area theaters. Playwright/director Kevin Lawler said Lara’s positive vibe attracts much support. “She is the most talented stage manager I have ever worked with, a real artist, and one of the most fantastic people I have ever met. She is deeply beloved by the entire theater community in Omaha. A truly exceptional person.” He said her “extraordinary story” is literally “a race against time.”
More than $45,000 has been raised on her behalf. COTA matches some monies raised. Proceeds from this Saturday’s noon to 6 p.m. Lungs for Lara event at Sumtur Amphitheater at Walnut Creek in Papillion will go toward her transplant fund. The organizers are Random Acts of Kindness, COTA, Places, Please! and Cells for Life. There will be raffles, booths, a karaoke competition, a bounce house, live bands and food. Admission is a used cell phone or ink cartridge or a $5 donation.
Lara’s symptoms sometimes prevent her from attending such events. It may be exhaustion or infection. Coughing jags are frequent. The worst thing about CF, she said, “is knowing it’s never going to get better without the transplant. And as much as I try to do the regimens (respiratory treatments, antibiotic IVs, exercise) I’m supposed to and live life and be positive and do this, and do that, the progression still happens, and I really got hit in the face with that last year. Big time.” Her Forced Expiratory volume levels dropped, necessitating she go on oxygen.
“It’s not like I did anything to bring it on, it just happened, and so as much as I try to do to prevent it my body reminds me, Hey, this is still going to happen, whether you like it or not. Essentially, I’m not a 39 year-old. My insides are more like a 60-somethings. And so when I catch a cold or whatever it’s slower for my body to recover. You never know about side effects or other things that could go wrong, especially with a transplant.”
A reminder of the dangers is the experience of Amy, who died of complications from the procedure.
“I’m not afraid to get the transplant,” said Lara. “I already decided a long time ago I would do it. I just want to get it over with, really. I’m ready to move on with my life. But I’m nervous about how my body will react and how long it will take to recoup.”
Periodic hospitalizations take Lara away from what she loves most — friends, family, the theater. Because CF’s been her lifetime companion she’s had the bittersweet experience of befriending and losing fellow travelers.
“There’s been some CFers I’ve gotten close with and most of them have died. All the ones I knew growing up have passed. This one gal I knew, we had a 20-year friendship, and she passed last year. She’s the last one.”
Still, Lara seeks out other sufferers, even though meeting entails risks. “We can be a danger to each other if we are near one another and are contagious, and so we exercise what we call the three-foot rule — stay at least three feet from each other. And don’t touch. It’s harder for us to get to know each other now because of HIPPA privacy laws.” Despite red tape, she manages finding folks who defy the odds. “I’ve definitely been exposed to enough negative results that I need to find some positive ones, so I’ve been meeting some patients who are doing really well .”
She resists limitations. “One thing my doctors and I recently talked about is my CF could reach a point where I have to quit work, and I told them I can’t fathom it, it’s unacceptable…” Her precious travel could also be curtailed. “It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. Something CF has contributed to is me wanting to experience the most out of life, to see anything and everything I can. I have a goal to see all 50 states. I have about seven left. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Her “ultimate dream” is visiting Australia, and not just for the beaches. “I’ve loved Koalas since I was a little kid…I want to go pet a Koala.”
“Recovery is not like it used to be and that is disturbing.”
Lara Marsh blog entry
Visit COTA’s Web site for Lara, which contains her blogs, at www.cotaforlaram.com.
- Cystic Fibrosis No Longer a Kids’ Disease (abcnews.go.com)
- Cystic fibrosis breakthrough reveals why females fare worse than males (medicalxpress.com)
- May is Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month (sacbee.com)
- Foundation Hopes To Raise Funds, Hope For Cystic Fibrosis Month (detroit.cbslocal.com)
Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
Not just another family business. That’s the case with a venerable Omaha pharmacy business that’s been in the Kohll family for generations and maintained its relevancy in an age of mega corporate pharmacy chains by having laser focus on customer needs and anticipating what the next big things are in the field. In the case of Kohll’s, the business has become a leader in delivering homecare services and products for a population of aging parents and adult caregivers. My story from a half dozen years ago or so originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
A peek inside a family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare in Omaha soon reveals this is not the drug store of your mother’s or father’s nostalgia. Sure, pharmacists in white coats still dispense prescription medicines from behind a counter, but mostly gone are the sundry retail items associated with a traditional drug store — greeting cards, stationary, magazines, household goods, candy, alcohol and soft drinks. In their place is an array of home medical equipment and service stations dedicated to meeting the health care needs of clients, particularly seniors or anyone coping with chronic illnesses.
The biggest changes, however, can’t be seen on site, as they encompass a wide range of services that help Kohll’s respond more quickly and comprehensively to individual client needs. For example, health care professionals on staff, such as occupational and respiratory therapists and a dietitian, make home visits to do assessments and devise strategies that foster greater independence. A call/future-orders center tracks what medical supplies clients are low on and gets new shipments out to their homes before they run out. A pharmacy benefits division supplies discounted meds to employees of subscriber-employers. Homecare products may be ordered online or via mail-order. A compounding division prepares custom meds for human and animal patients. An age-management section provides hormone replacement therapy to participating seniors. A contracting unit installs stair glides in people’s homes and renovates residential bathrooms to enhance accessibility and safety.
The company’s come a long way since Louis and Leona Kohll opened the original store in 1948 at 29th and Leavenworth. Back then the store was open 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every single day of the year. The couple’s sons, Marvin and Jerry, followed them in the business. Founder Louis Kohll died at age 49 following a heart attack he suffered in the store. Marvin was his only partner at the time and Jerry later joined him. Marvin and Jerry later split the business, with Jerry building up a nursing home supply division. Jerry eventually sold his interests to a national company. What made the then-small company a success all those years ago is the same thing that keeps Kohll’s successful now as a much larger organization — customer service. Today, a pair of third generation pharmacist brothers, David and Justin Kohll, Marvin’s two surviving sons, maintain the customer-first policy.
“For me, the satisfaction is taking care of the patients. It’s working with our health care team to come up with a solution and to know that we made a difference. It also helps you to feel good. It’s the thing that gets you to work the next day,” said David, whose oldest brother, Louis, died recently, but not before making his own mark in the business as a pharmacist and manager.
Lessons learned have been passed down from one generation to the next. It all comes down to hard work, fair play and treating people right.
“Our father taught by example,” David said. “His example was the basics like beingpolite, honest, follow through, et cetera. He’s worked hard his whole life.”
Just as Louis Kohll taught his sons Marvin and Jerry the trade, Marvin taught his boys the ins-and-outs. Pharmacists all, they built the foundation for an enterprise that’s gone from a single mom-and-pop store to a multi-faceted, seven-location corporation. Kohll’s stays competitive in an era when national franchises dominate the market and drive most other family-owned independents out of business.
To survive, the family found what Justin calls “a niche” that separates what they do from the pack. With a nursing homes supplies division already in place and the senior health care market ever growing, they gradually hit upon senior homecare as their specialization. As David’s fond of saying, “There’s a lot of opportunities. There’s just so many things out there.”
It’s the one-stop-shopping model applied to health care. But saying you’re one-stop and doing it are two different things.
“Everybody tried to promote they were doing one-stop-shopping, but they really weren’t,” Justin said. “Some companies tried doing it and they quit…now they just do respiratory or they just do power chairs, where we can do it all. We really are truly one-stop. You can come here for everything.”
The store that best epitomizes the company’s one-stop health-orientation is at 127th and Q, where clients can: get prescriptions filled inside or via a drive-thru window; receive vaccinations and blood pressure/cholesterol screenings along with hormone replacement injections; get fitted for wheelchairs, mastectomy bras, compression socks or ostomy bags; select from many other personal care items, such as chairs, scooters, walking aids, raised toilets and bath/shower bars; and even have a lift installed on their van. The store has bays dedicated to not only installations but also repairs of lifts, power chairs, scooters and glides and has even opened a showroom selling vans that come equipped with lifts.
“You can go anywhere in the country and you will not see a facility that looks like this. I guarantee it,” David said. “You might see some who have some wheelchairs or this and that — kind of shoved in the corner, but without real experts doing it. None has anything to this (level of) commitment. Pharmacists generally own their pharmacy and if you’re trying to get everything done right there you’ve got to be really committed to this and you’ve got to like it. You can’t just do it for the business or it’s going to go away.”
It’s about the Kohll family being smart and passionate about what they do.
“We try to pick and choose what we do,” Justin said. “I mean, we could do a lot of things, but we usually pick something we like to do also. You’re going to do a better job if you like it.”
Each Kohll’s pharmacy offers the basics when it comes to prescriptions, vaccinations and screenings, along with a general selection of health care items, but each store also specializes in something. For example, the 127th and Q store specializes in mobility products. It’s also the company’s headquarters, housing the administrative offices, marketing department, call center and future orders center. The Leavenworth store features respiratory/oxygen supplies. The 50th and Dodge site specializes in mastectomy fittings and compression stockings. The 114th and Dodge location handles the compounding side and veterinary needs. And so on.
Instead of extra inventory taking up space at each location, one central supply site contains medical supplies, which makes it easier to track what’s in stock and to send supplies out as needed. Being able to respond to many different needs is what Kohll’s does best, Justin and David say. “Knowing you have something for the patient, knowing that you’ll do a good job, knowing that you’ll get it there in a timely fashion,” said Justin, adding that in most cases patients only think about health care aids when a crisis occurs. “You don’t know unless you need it,” he said. “If you need something, hopefully the physician will send it through here because normally we’ll have it. And, right up front as customers come in they see all the products and maybe that gets them to thinking, ‘Hey, I saw walkers at Kohll’s. My mom needs a walker.’ That’s what we try to do.”
“We try to educate people,” David said. Part of that education, he explained, is providing timely, state-of-the-art answers for people as their health care needs progress. A wheelchair patient may be upgraded to a power chair. If a patient can’t move his or her arms any longer, a lift may be in order. Kohll’s visiting homecare professionals are trained to recognize when a client’s declining health dictates action in the absence of a regular caregiver or adult children. Its future orders callers and delivery drivers are trained to ask questions that reveal the kinds of changes that indicate problems. This way, unhappy outcomes can be avoided.
“A person may be doing pretty good but they may get to the point where they can’t walk very well and instead of somebody recognizing that they just stay in their apartment more and then they can’t walk at all and instead of being in a wheelchair they’re just in bed all the time. And the next thing you know the senior develops a bed sore. It causes the progressive deterioration to go faster,” David said. “What we try to do is ask questions every month, like — Do you have trouble getting up from a chair? If they answer yes to that we ask more questions and begin coming up with solutions. It might be a raised toilet seat or bath bars or a lift.”
It’s also about anticipating future needs.
“Somebody getting their prescriptions and adult diapers from us now are more than likely within a year going to need a walker. We try to be aware of that,” David said.
The goal is helping patients maintain independence in their own homes.
“It could be something as simple as a reacher. Maybe it’s become hard for somebody to bend over and stand up. It can be just basic things to keep people doing what they were doing for as long as possible. To make it so they don’t go into that nursing home or that assisted living facility. To keep them in their own home with their regular neighbors. That’s what we want to do,” David said.
The ongoing education Kohll’s does with clients includes getting folks to see that a homecare product like a stair glide is not a step back but a step forward.
“A lot of times seniors have the mind set — ‘I don’t want a glider to help me get up the stairs because I want my independence.’ They don’t understand that by risking a fall where they fracture a pelvis or an ankle, they’re actually saying, Make me dependent,” David said. “We’re trying to do all we can to show that you can have a much better life if you get one of these things. But don’t get the hospital-looking one, get the red one so people don’t feel sorry for you.”
He said the public should shop around when buying home medical equipment, such as power chairs. It pays to go where there’s good selection and price as well as proven expertise. A Kohll’s advantage is that it knows and stands behind the items, even doing repairs. He said too many people just go where it’s convenient.
“If you all of a sudden end up in the hospital after a fall, you’ve got to get a chair now. You’re more reliant on professionals to get you through it. You don’t have time to do any preparation. The sad part about that is that you might make a mistake and go to a place that doesn’t really know anything about it and get something wrong for you,” David said.
All the emphasis on home health supports doesn’t mean Kohll’s has left behind the core or traditional pharmacy service of filling prescriptions.
“We’d like o be filling prescriptions for everybody in Omaha or anywhere around,” David said. “We don’t want them to go elsewhere because if they get their prescriptions from us then they’ll have more of an awareness of the other things that might benefit them. I don’t want to get away from our base of prescriptions. All three of us (himself, Justin and their father Marvin) were trained as pharmacists. We think it all starts with prescriptions because we’re trusted more than any other profession. The patients know us or they see us or they talk to us the most often. It all starts there and then we can bring them into all these other things.”
The family’s arrived at a democratic way of setting policy and managing operations.
“My father has a say in things if he chooses, but there isn’t and hasn’t been a dictatorship or hierarchy or veto power by any of us,” David said. “Each of us would explore an idea and if it looked successful, it would be presented to each other. We then give suggestions and implement it. We’ve had our disagreements, but we’re so concerned and busy with providing our customers/patients with the best care possible that the disagreements are taken care of within 24 hours,” David said. “We really don’t have time for disagreements. I don’t believe the staff’s felt pulled in different directions by each of us, so it’s not an issue.”
Marvin Kohll said the family avoids internal strife as each member involved in the business establishes “responsibilities” distinct and apart from the others’. Besides, he said, “I was never a real taskmaster to them. I let them pretty well do as they pleased and they responded.” David said that’s still the case.
While David monitors the retail end, Justin runs the compounding side. Marvin’s watched over the money in recent years, taking a less and less active role. Still, David said, his presence is felt. “We always feel he’s working with us.” And if dad sees something amiss, David said, “He’ll rip us about something we can do better.”
“Towards Louis’s last years he mainly oversaw the employer pharmacy benefits
area and pharmacy mail order division,” David said. “Since his passing we have continued where he left off. He did a phenomenal job educating the staff…making it easier for us to carry on. It is difficult because we worked so closely together.”
Marvin’s boys weren’t pushed to go into the family business, but each came to it on his own. From the time they were young they hung around their dad at work after school or on vacation.
“We probably first came down to the pharmacies when we were about 4-5 years old. My brothers and I were only 3 years apart, so we played pretty rough and I think my mother would ship us to the pharmacy when she had enough of us,” David recalled. “At first my father would just try to get us out of his way and assign us to one of the staff. They would usually have us break up empty boxes. Over time we became more useful as clerks, stockers, drivers and then pharmacy helpers. We begin working full-time summers when we were 16 or 17.”
Besides David, Justin and Louis, some other Kohlls have contributed to running and growing the family company. “Two of Jerry Kohll’s kids, Cindy and Alan, joined the company in the early ‘90s. They contributed significantly, but not as pharmacists,” David said.
What the next generation holds as far as new Kohll blood entering the business, no one knows. Since David and his wife Janet are the parents of five young children the odds are at least one will follow David’s path. Marvin Kohll said one grandchild has expressed interest to him in studying pharmacy, which if it comes to pass would mean a fourth generation of pharmacists in the family. But more than family legacy keeps the company strong 58 years after its start — its single-minded focus.
“We don’t feel a responsibility to the next generation to carry on the family business. The responsibility we have is to our customers/patients to provide excellent care to them,” David said.