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VA Stepping Up Efforts for Veterans Who are Expectant Moms

A woman sits with her daughter and baby, surrounded by gifts

Sitting Pretty — A new mom, her daughter and newborn stocked with baby supplies from the Phoenix VA Medical Center’s volunteer corps.

A woman loads the back of a car with gifts

Good to Go — A mom-to-be loads her trunk with baby items donated by various local and national charities, compliments of the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center in Phoenix.

An older woman stands by a car filled with grocery bags

Shop Till You Drop — Barbara Shaw has just spent the day shopping for baby items, and seems fairly satisfied with her efforts.

A woman insects a bag between full storage shelves

Like Peas in a Pod — Kathy Laurier sorts through hundreds of baby items which are stored in a ‘pod’ on the grounds of the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center in Phoenix.

In 2008 two sisters — Kathy Laurier and Barbara Shaw — decided to volunteer at their local VA medical center in Phoenix, Ariz. They just wanted to help out in some small way. But within a short time, their efforts touched the lives of hundreds of pregnant women Veterans.

“I was in the Navy,” said Kathy, 64. “I’ve been receiving my health care at the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center in Phoenix, and I felt like I wanted to give something back. I decided I wanted to be involved with the Women’s Clinic, if at all possible.”

“Creating innovative solutions using the support of other women Veterans is one way to meet the needs of new women Veterans, many of whom are mothers.”

— Dr. Patricia Hayes

Spreading the Word

“VA has come a long way as far as the care they provide to women vets,” said Barbara, 73. “But not too many VA hospitals are set up to handle the needs of vets who are moms-to-be. So when a woman Veteran becomes pregnant, the VA sends her to a private practitioner to get the care she needs.”

Dr. Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for VA’s Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group, said VA sends expectant moms to local health care practitioners because that’s where they can receive the best care. In most cases, she said, Veterans can choose the obstetrician they want to see.

“Only a few of our larger medical centers are equipped to provide obstetrical care on-site,” Hayes explained. “So for the most part, VA relies on private health care providers to perform this service. We pay for the care, we monitor the care, but we don’t actually provide the care.”

Hayes said it’s also VA’s policy to stay in contact with the woman during her pregnancy, with the goal of having her return to VA primary care within 6-8 weeks after her delivery.

“Our goal was to create a better, closer, more personal relationship between these women Veterans and their VA Medical Center,” said Kathy Laurier. “Making sure they have an adequate supply of baby items — like diapers, baby clothes, and blankets — is one way of doing that. So we came up with the idea of gift baskets.

“Our first baskets were very small, with only a few items,” she added. “Barb and I were buying most of the baby items ourselves.”

Barbara said she and her sister quickly realized that in order to keep their gift basket program going, they were going to need some help. Specifically, they would need donations.

“The Arizona State Daughters of the American Revolution was the first charity to chip in and help us,” Barbara explained. “Now, three years later, we have a number of local and even national charities helping out. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution recently adopted us — they’ve taken us on as a national project.”

“Our first year was kind of quiet,” Kathy noted. “We only had about 25 moms. That’s because the program was so new. But in 2009 we had about 48 moms, and in 2010 we had 60. The word is starting to spread.”

A Christmas Story

Kathy stays in touch with every woman in the program, calling her once each month to make sure she’s doing OK physically, emotionally, and financially.

“During their last two months I call them every week,” Kathy explained. “If she’s high risk, I’ll call her more often. About one month before she delivers, Barb and I will bring her a gift basket — it’s more like a gift ‘tub,’ actually — a big plastic tub full of useful baby items.”

“Then we give her a basket that’s just for her,” Barbara added. “It has mom stuff, like lotions, a candle, slippers, even a bathrobe.”

Kathy recalled an experience she had with a 43-year-old Veteran who was single and pregnant with twins. “Originally she was pregnant with quads,” said Kathy. “She lost one; then, about two weeks later, she lost the second. “Barbara and I made her baskets and she picked them up at the VA a few days before Christmas. She called me on Christmas night and was literally sobbing. She told me — as do most of the women — that she never expected anything like this. What touched me most were her last words to me before she hung up. She said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever felt not forgotten.’

“That kind of thing makes all this work worthwhile,” Kathy said.

We Just Listen

Once baby arrives, Barbara calls the new moms once each month for as long as they’re breastfeeding.

“That way we know if she’s having any health problems, and if her baby’s OK,” Barbara explained. “We don’t give out medical advice, we just listen. Then we pass on what we learn to Cara Garcia, the women Veterans program manager at the Phoenix VA.”

“This monthly contact is critical if we’re going to keep these women in the VA health care system,” Garcia explained. “We don’t want to lose track of them…we don’t want them drifting away from us once they deliver, and now they won’t — thanks to the efforts of Kathy, Barbara and other volunteers like them.”

A number of other VA facilities — including the St. Louis VA Medical Center, Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, and the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La. — are enlisting volunteers as well as local community organizations, including Veterans service organizations, to help provide for the needs of expectant mothers.