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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Madison Cancer Center Ribbon Cutting, William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital
Madison, WI
August 13, 2021

John [Rohrer, VAMC Director], thanks for that generous introduction. More importantly, thanks for your leadership—not only of our VA Medical Center here in Madison, but also in leading the team that enabled us to gather for this important ribbon cutting ceremony.

Like all worthwhile endeavors, opening this cancer center is the result of hard work and cooperation by many people. So to the activation team that worked tirelessly on this facility—engineers, planners, cancer program staff, safety, housekeeping, quality assurance, interior design staff, and many others—thank you all for bringing us to this day.

Congressman Mark Pocan, thank you for joining us. And thanks to the community leaders, especially the Madison VA affiliate—the University of Wisconsin Hospital—for their support and partnership, and all the other attendees who have supported our efforts. It’s great to have you here.

President Biden often says that our most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. The second part of that sacred obligation is ours to fulfill at VA. And to me, doing that job well boils down to delivering the most access and best outcomes for Veterans, because at the end of the day they, not us, are the ultimate judges of our success. 

That’s why every action we take, and every decision we make, must be based on a simple principle—increasing access to care and benefits and improving outcomes for Veterans, their families, their caregivers, and survivors. That’s what opening this facility is all about. This center will improve outcomes for Veterans suffering from cancer, increasing their access to the best care.

And, let’s be honest, the Veterans and families who will come here will often be concerned, and scared. Sometimes, they will come here on one of the most stressful days of their lives, sometimes in the last days of their lives. In other words, they’ll come here in the moments when they need VA most. And when they do, we need to serve them just as well as they’ve served our country. This center will help us do exactly that.

Seeing it firsthand, I can say that this center is simply amazing—including technology new to the hospital that will allow for better outcomes for Veterans for years to come:

  • A design that will allow for four additional floors above it for future expansion—critical given the location of the VA campus here in Madison and limits for additional buildings;

  • Flexibility to expand to activate a second Radiation Treatment bunker to keep up with future demand for care;

  • Cutting-edge technology and capabilities for Veterans, such as the Varian TrueBeam Linear Accelerator, for more effective radiation therapy;

  • A state-of-the-art system called Identify that uses a 3D camera, allowing radiation therapists to track the body surface in real time and more effectively deliver treatment.

  • And a docking station for a mobile PET / CT [Positron Emission Tomography / Computed Tomography] scanner for early cancer detection and treatment.

 All new here at the Madison VAMC. This building, and these new capabilities, are essential for some of our most vulnerable Veterans. But it’s also important to remember that the most important element in caring for those Veterans will always be our VA people, so many of whom are here today

Because machines and technology enable better care, but they don’t deliver care, comfort, and compassion to Veterans. People do. You do. Buildings and facilities provide greater access and opportunities, but they do not interact with Veterans’ family members and caregivers. You do. And when a Veteran comes here, concerned about a scary diagnosis, this building won’t comfort them. This building won’t save their lives. You will.

Patients and their families know that better than anyone. This past May, for example, I received an e-mail from a Veteran’s daughter, Dr. Jennifer Bendiske. Her father, a Navy Veteran of Vietnam, was receiving care at a VA Medical Center for both Parkinson's disease and stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.

Jennifer wrote:

Everyone who my parents or I have encountered at the Medical Center, from those who work in the canteen to those who provide medical care, seem to genuinely care . . . . the care that has been directed towards my parents is a comfort to them, my sister, and our families.

In addition to the genuine concern shown by the medical staff, the treatments . . . proposed are in line with current best practices for this type and stage of disease . . . . I know this because I am in clinical drug development, working towards new treatment for non-small cell lung cancer . . . .

I suspect that much of the feedback that you receive relates to that which is not working; I wanted to provide an example of care that meets the expectations of the Veteran and his family.

That’s the kind of experience every Veteran and every family member deserves from VA. And let’s remember who makes that happen: VA clinicians and staff like many of you. You are the ones who care for Veterans like Jennifer’s father. You are the ones who have risked your lives during the ongoing pandemic to care for Veterans. And you are the ones, each day, who make a difference in the lives of Veterans and their families across this great nation and here at the Madison VA.

So, thanks to our great VA employees for all you do. And thank you all for joining us on this very special day here in Madison.

Now, I’d like to invite Brianne Arndt, Radiation Therapy Supervisor, Dr. Jennifer Smilowitz, Chief Physicist, and Dr. Jessica Schuster, Chief Radiation Oncologist, to come on up and give me a hand in cutting this ribbon.