Going to the VA Clinic
By Gregory Ross
I got laid off and lost my health care. I went to my local VA clinic. A VA cop asked me for my VA ID card. I told him that I was coming to sign up. All through this short conversation he seemed edgy, almost hyper-vigilant. He asked if I had my DD214. When I pulled it out of my shirt pocket and said, "Do you need to see it?" He visibly relaxed, smiled and said, "Second floor, sir." As I have been going up to the clinic more, what I had guessed about his demeanor has proven true. I have seen at least one guy go off on the VA cop because he forgot his VA ID card. Seems foolish to get in the face of an armed man, but, then I never did get the military macho ethic.
On the second floor I got in the first line I saw. A short time later I was handing my DD214 to the man behind the counter and telling him I would like to get an appointment for an intake. He turned to the computer and said, "How soon would you like to come in, sir." All this "Sir" stuff was making me nervous, I had not been an officer. "As soon as possible," I said. He turned back to the computer, clicked away; then said, "How about 3pm today." It was 2:50 pm. We smiled at each other. At about 3:05 pm a nurse called my name and after a perfunctory intake of vital signs, weight, and a few ways of asking me if I was depressed and/or suicidal, I was given an appointment for a half hour physical with a VA doctor and I went home.
Three weeks later another friendly nurse took my vitals and assessed my possible level of depression, then took me to see "Dr. V. Minh" [of course it is a made up name but, not a made up description], who was about 5 feet tall, maybe 95 pounds, maybe 50 years old. He sat at his computer and fired questions at me, mostly about how much I drank and if I did drugs. When I told him I drink about a 6 pack of beer a year, he said, "Oh, a 6 pack a day?" I corrected him but, he ignored me. "How often do you do drugs?" he asked. I replied, emphasizing every word, "A LONG TIME AGO, WHEN I DID DRUGS, WHICH I NO LONGER DO, I DID THEM EVERY DAY." He nodded his head and entered something into the computer. Then he listened to my heart and asked if anything hurt. I have an Achilles tendon that may need surgery. I had a tumor removed from my Spinal Cord that necessitated at least one more MRI to rule out it's regrowth. I have a low testosterone count and have to use a gel daily or I get depressed and lethargic. If this man was going to be my "Medical Gatekeeper" we had to be on better terms.
When I noticed a pack of acupuncture needles and a point location "doll," I said, "You do acupuncture?" For the first time he looked at me. I told him I had just lost a job with the County Hospital working in the Chemical Dependency Clinic and the HIV/AIDS Clinic doing acupuncture. The look he gave me said, "Delusional," then he entered something in the computer. I asked, "Are you from Viet Nam?" He flinched and kept me in his view. It was then that I realized that neither he nor the nurse closed the door to their offices, they both had just pulled a curtain across the door. He said, "Yes." I asked, "Did you study Acupuncture in Viet Nam?" He shook his head. I asked, "Here?" He said, "No, in Beijing." That could only mean one thing, he was from North Viet Nam. We looked at each other for a while then he said the half hour was up and that I should go get blood drawn and gave me a slip to get a follow-up appointment. We were only 20 minutes into the alleged half-hour appointment.
When next I came in I was again seen by a very nice nurse for vitals; again with just a curtain draw, no closed door; again including the queries about depression; then to "Dr. V. Minh's" office, again no closed door there either. He was seated at his computer. He did not look up but just asked my name, then began to go over my blood draw. I had to know, so I just said it, "Last time I was here we talked about acupuncture and you told me you studied in Beijing?" He cut his eyes at me, squinted a little, then indicated he remembered. I said, "I was wondering then..." I hesitated a moment then decided to just go for it. "am I being treated by an ex-VC doctor?" He laughed and said, "Your mind works well. No, I was from Sai Gon, came to America and became an MD then came to California and decided to learn acupuncture. I paid a lot of money and went to Beijing as part of the Acupuncture for Physicians school." He laughed again and said, "Very good, you made the connections that if I studied in Beijing, I must be from North Viet Nam." We both had a good laugh even though the implication was that I wasn't so drug or alcohol addled that I couldn't think straight. He then wrote out a referral for an Orthopedic work-up and a visit with the Urologist. We went the whole half hour this time and I left with us shaking hands and laughing. Irony, thy name is Veterans Affairs Health Care System.
Gregory Ross is a Navy vet, in the Gun Line off the coast of Viet Nam with the 7th Fleet [1968-69]. He's a graduate of a VA drug, alcohol and PTSD program ; Acupuncturist, Detox specialty [since 1989], laid off . published in "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace".