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Tampa's VA Staff and STAR Room Noted for Work with Brain-Injured Veterans

The Veterans Affairs scandal over delayed medical appointments and secret wait lists is still unfolding. And there’s been plenty of evidence that there are systemic problems at VA medical facilities throughout the U.S.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Deputy VA secretary Sloan Gibson at the April opening of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.

Yet, even the VA’s toughest critics note that most of the VA medical staff are hardworking, dedicated professionals.

“I believe that the majority of VA’s workforce, in particular, the doctors and nurses who provide our veterans with the care they need, endeavor to provide high-quality health care,” said Florida Congressman Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Thursday at a hearing on VA bureaucratic barriers.

The medical staff at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center was acknowledged in April for their “cutting edge” care that helped revive Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg from a severe brain injury.

“He (Remsburg) arrived comatose with a severe, traumatic brain injury and long odds for recovery. But VA’s remarkable medical staff never gave up on the effort to jump start his brain,” said  Sloan Gibson in April as then deputy VA secretary at the opening of the new Haley Polytrauma Center.

Gibson is now acting VA secretary having taken the reigns after the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“They tried a countless variety of sensory approaches to bring him to consciousness everything from aroma therapy to sitcoms on TV,” Gibson said. “Three months later, Cory became one of seven out of 10 patients with severe traumatic brain injury who’d come back to life through VA’s ground breaking emerging consciousness program.”

Those sensory therapies, used by the medical staff, have been brought together in the new, Haley Polytrauma Center. The STAR Room,  an acronym that for the Sensory Technology Awareness Room, is designed specifically for patients who are minimally conscious or emerging from severe brain injuries.

Speech language pathologist Kathryn Kieffer welcomed visitors into the STAR Room during the open house in April. It was dimly lit in hues of purple and pink.

Kieffer pushed a large, flag-shaped button that activated a toy monkey which clanged its cymbals and squeaked.

“We have over here an eye gaze device,” Kieffer then demonstrated how by just looking at a button written with the word “yes” – it generated the computer to say “yes.”

The STAR room has a multi-sensory environment with a myriad of technologies to stimulate all the patient’s senses from auditory to tactile. Kieffer pointed to one of the bubble tubes. They are clear cylinders filled with liquid. A light underneath changes colors as small bubbles percolate upward.

“The bubble tubes also have some vibratory properties to them so you can touch them and get some tactile feedback,” Kieffer said.

The STAR room was not available when Cory Remsburg was at Haley, but many of the therapies were and much of the medical staff. And those dedicated professionals now have the STAR room and the story of Cory Remsburg to motivate other severely wounded veterans to not give up.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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