The Women of VA
VA offers a full continuum range of health care services to women veterans, including comprehensive gender-specific primary care (for acute and chronic illness), specialty care, mental health care, disease prevention and screening, emergency care, and women’s health specialty care (including advanced breast and gynecological care, maternity care, and some infertility treatments.)
Elizabeth Hill, PhD, RN, VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, Reno. Photo by Darin Farr
The Department of Veterans Affairs employs about 327,000 people. Do you know how many of them are women? Take a guess:
We can’t give you the answer right now, because that would make it too easy for you to glance down at this paragraph for the correct answer. Which, of course, is cheating. So in an effort to build suspense, we’ve cleverly hidden the answer somewhere in this article, in a very inconspicuous place.
Now, if you’re one of those smart folks who actually knows how many women work at VA, here’s a tougher question for you: how many of our female employees are veterans?
No quiz this time. The answer is nearly 30,000, and a number of them have important leadership roles within the Department.
Take Dr. Anne Mancino, for example. She’s chief of general surgery at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock. The former Army Reserve colonel served as a surgeon during Operation Iraqi Freedom and has been with VA since 1992.
Learning to Listen
“I’m a veteran, and I have veterans in my family,” she said. “My dad was in the Army National Guard. My mom was a nurse in the Army Reserve. My granddad served in the Navy during World War II; he fought in the South Pacific.”
Over the years Mancino has saved a lot of lives in the operating room at Little Rock, but she doesn’t regard this as her most important contribution to the veterans she serves.
“I’ve probably done more good for people just by taking time to listen to them,” she said. “The thing I really like about VA is that we try to treat the whole patient…we try to look at who they are, not just their diagnosis. We’re treating human beings here, not a collection of symptoms.”
Mancino said she remembers one veteran in particular who was seriously ill, both physically and mentally, but was more in need of human warmth than medication or surgery.
“He was a chronic patient here,” Mancino said. “He was our permanent guest. He had a lot of health issues, and was in and out of our intensive care unit. I tried to talk with him and support him, let him know that people were watching out for him, that he wasn’t alone. He liked movies with Ronald Reagan in them, so I would bring him Ronald Reagan movies to watch.”
Sadly, Mancino’s Ronald Reagan fan never made a successful recovery.
“He never got a chance to leave the hospital,” she said. “But I like to think we gave him some hope while he was here. Shortly before he died he told me, ‘You cared about me, and you never gave up on me.’”
Mancino said another aspect of her work she enjoys immensely is being able to personally relate to many of her patients.
“As veterans, we share many of the same experiences,” she explained. “We’re able to connect. Sometimes they’ll tell me about things they won’t tell other people, because they know I’ll understand.”
“I’ve probably done more good for people just by taking time to listen to them.”
— Dr. Anne Mancino
Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System
Another VA physician who can relate strongly to her patients is Dr. Mary Maniscalco-Theberge, the deputy medical inspector for professional services in VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector in Washington, D.C. Known affectionately as ‘Dr. Mary,’ she’s also an attending general surgeon at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and an associate professor of surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
“I remember this young man, a veteran of the Iraq War,” she said. “He had sustained a significant head injury, and now he was dealing with some post-operative complications. He was becoming discouraged. I remember talking with him, and when he found out I’d been a colonel in the Army his whole attitude and response to me changed dramatically. He no longer looked at me as part of a big bureaucracy. To him I was a fellow soldier. He understood that I understood.
“This veteran served in the Army,” she continued. “I served in the Army. It’s a brotherhood. It creates a bond that is a very real and valuable connection.”
Prior to her arrival at VA, Dr. Mary was an active duty surgeon in the Army for 26 years.
“It was a privilege to care for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their families,” she said. “When I retired in 2006, I went to work for VA because I wanted to continue working with people who served their country. I think that people who choose to serve in the military are special people who believe in something bigger than themselves. To be able to care for them is truly an honor.”
The physician said she comes from a family with a history of military service. “My father was in the Navy for 21 years,” she said. “His father was in the Navy and the Army. “My dad was really proud of me for serving.”
Laughing, she added, “The only thing that would have made my dad more proud of me was if I’d been a Navy captain, instead of an Army colonel.”
Answer to pop quiz: B. 194,147
Elizabeth Hill, who came to VA in 2007, is yet another veteran whose family has deep roots in the military. She’s currently the associate chief of staff for research at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno. Before coming to VA, she served on active duty in a variety of roles in the Army. For a time she also served as a community health nurse with the Public Health Service, where she worked with the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi Tribes in Arizona.
“My dad was a World War II veteran,” she said. “My mother was an army nurse; she served in the Philippines during World War II. My daughter served in Iraq during Desert Storm. And I have a sister who was in the Air Force.”
Hill and her team are currently engaged in several projects designed, ultimately, to conquer a number of health issues that shorten the lives of so many veterans.
“We do a lot of research on diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other things,” she said. “Our work here has great potential to improve the health of veterans. One of our most interesting studies concerns a vaccine for prostate cancer. It’s in clinical trials, but we’re very excited about it.
“I enjoy coming to work every day,” she added. “It gives me a good feeling.”
Hill said that if she had to name one person who had the biggest influence on her life, as well as her career choice, it would be her mom — the army nurse who served in the Philippines 70 years ago.
“I grew up on a ranch in west Texas…no electricity, no phone,” Hill said. “We were out in the middle of nowhere. Dad died when I was around 17, so Mom was left to manage the ranch and raise four kids on her own. So I grew up with a woman who was remarkably strong, independent, and decisive.
“She drove a pickup truck,” Hill added.
The VA researcher said her mother was also very generous with her time, often traveling across the border into Mexico, in the company of other healthcare workers, to provide immunizations to the poor. For a time, she also worked at the VA in Big Spring.
“She had energy,” Hill said. “I never saw her sick in bed, except for maybe right after she had my little brother.”
And despite her exhausting days, mom always took time to read bedtime stories to her kids at night.
“She would read us Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson,” Hill laughed. “I guess it didn’t have a negative effect on us. We all seem to be OK. At least so far.”