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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

On the Road and Finding the Care in Health Care

September 11, 2012

Creative Services Manager Brian Clark is on the road capturing images of health care in Colorado for a special upcoming CHI project. He is filing occasional dispatches from the road to highlight some of the people and places he encounters.

RIFLE — CHI's upcoming special project will feature more information on the work being done by Dr. Patricio Gonzalez and the dental staff at Mountain Family Health Center in Rifle–where many of the patients are uninsured or underinsured. But for now I want to share another of the many side stories I've come across during my travels.

Dr. Gonzalez works 10-hour days and lives about 25 miles away in Glenwood Springs. Long hours and a long commute don’t leave much time for extracurricular activities, so he finds little pockets of time to unwind. Gonzalez keeps a guitar in his office and is teaching himself how to play during down time between patients. He jokes that he brings the guitar to work because the materials for his other hobby, making glass mosaics, won't fit in the office.

I also met with Dr. Gary Millard, the clinic’s dental director, and his buddy Alexander. Alexander is a puppet Millard uses when he travels to schools to talk to kids about the benefits of good dental hygiene. Millard says the voice he uses for Alexander has been described as a cross between Yoda and Cookie Monster.

I am thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to observe Colorado health care professionals in action and to get to know a little bit about them as people. Our state's health care community is loaded with talented people and amazing stories. 

DENVER — I had a chance to visit with Dr. Lindsey Fish and second-year CU medical student Racheal Gilmer as they worked with members of the only population in Colorado for which health care is constitutionally guaranteed: prison inmates.

The location was the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, 3600 Havana Street, which is just south of the Denver County Jail. It was a sobering visit, to say the least. But it was a good reminder that health care affects everyone in Colorado - men, women, children and convicted felons.

The prison clinic was similar in appearance to many others I’ve come across during my travels, save for the occasional patient being led down the hall in handcuffs. However, on a bulletin board in one of the exam rooms I was able to pick out one little image of levity among the razor-wire fences and intimidating armed guards. See the attached photo.

A tinge of sadness has accompanied the departures from each of the stops on my trip, but this time I will say I was more relieved than sad once I was safely outside the prison gates and back on the road.

ALAMOSA — I admit I was a little nervous when I showed up to take pictures during lunch at the La Puente Emergency Shelter in Alamosa. I really had no idea what kind of reception I would receive. Many of the guests at the shelter are homeless, many are migrant workers, and a good number are people with behavioral and mental histories. This is truly a gathering of community members in crisis.

Would they think I was disrespecting their dignity? Looking down on them through an expensive camera lens? Exploiting their plight for the sake of a good picture? I honestly didn’t know.

Before I took a picture, I asked each person for their permission. I hoped that offering a small token of respect would show them I was not there with ill intentions. The gesture apparently worked, because after a while I had people pulling me aside and asking me to take their picture so they could have something to send back to their families. Many of the guests at La Puente are migrant workers in town to work during harvest season before moving on to the next location.

I haven’t seen a lot of my family during this trip, but several of the people I talked to haven’t been home in years. The pictures I took for them to send home might be the only way their families get to see them for quite some time. I can’t even imagine.

The emergency shelter is at the heart of La Puente, a network of resources aimed at helping the area’s vulnerable population. It’s a place where guests will find a bed, a hot meal and an environment that offers compassion and hope. La Puente provides many services to those in need, including coordination of medical and mental health care and the operation of several local businesses that return all profits back to the organization.

I learned about La Puente while visiting a community health center in Alamosa. In the lobby of the clinic stands an imposing and brightly painted ceramic grizzly bear. (See photo). While I was taking pictures, one of the employees told me the story behind the impressive decoration. The bear sculpture was originally created by wildlife artist Jim Gilmore. Nine fiberglass copies were produced and given to various local artistic groups to decorate. The decorated bears were then auctioned to raise money for La Puente. All told, the auction brought in $19,000, and the bears are now prominently displayed in various locations around the San Luis Valley.

ALAMOSA—Six weeks after Dr. Bethany Kolb started working in Alamosa, the nurses in the obstetrics and gynecology office at San Luis Valley Medical Center informed her that they were dressing up as the Seven Dwarves of Menopause for Halloween and they needed the new doctor to play the role of Snow White.

Kolb didn’t usually even wear a costume for Halloween. But she grudgingly agreed and went to the costume store in search of an outfit. “I found this dark black wig at the store and when I put it on and went up to my husband he didn’t even recognize me for a few seconds,” Kolb said.

Since I’m sure you’re curious, the Seven Dwarves of Menopause are: Weepy, Bloaty, Itchy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Psycho and Hot Flash.

WALSENBURG—A few times during my trip, I’ve come across places that weren’t on my original itinerary, but that I thought would make wonderful additions to CHI’s upcoming project.

On my way to Alamosa I drove past just such a place: the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home in Walsenburg. I’m an Army veteran, and I thought stopping in for a visit would provide a unique view of how the facility provides its residents with Long-term Services and Supports. I called to see if they’d let me come hang out for a bit and they welcomed me with great enthusiasm. Veterans rule.

Director of Marketing Michelle Parks gave me the grand tour of the facility, which is attached to the Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center. She spoke with great pride about their progressive approach to caring for residents. Their goal is to take the nursing out of nursing home. It’s not just somewhere people go to die, Parks said. It’s a meaningful place where veterans and their spouses can go to live the reminder of their lives.

The facility strives to foster not just a sense of community, but a real sense of family as well. When a resident of the home passes on, for example, they are not quietly removed. Their body is draped in an American flag and taken out through the front door, past fellow veterans, volunteers and staff who line the hallways to offer one final salute.

Parks’ voice broke several times while telling me that story. The facility’s family had bid farewell to a resident earlier that morning.

Because it was a last-minute addition to my trip and I hadn’t seen my family in a week, I only planned to stay for a couple hours. I should have known better. Once I got to talking with the veterans and volunteers, those few hours turned into an entire day. Visiting with the veterans turned out to be one of the most memorable and emotionally satisfying stops of my entire trip.

I met veterans from all branches of the service who lit up at the sight of someone to talk to. I met John Dochter, a World War II Army veteran whose mind was still sharp enough to trick me on a numbers game. He’d ask me to pick a number from 1-15 and keep it to myself. Once I did that he consulted a chart he kept in a pouch in his wheelchair and he correctly guessed my number three times in a row. He might have kept going, but I think he realized I posed absolutely no challenge to his numerical mind. He kept the numbers chart in a three-ring binder that included papers, artwork and poems that held special meaning to him. He had each of the poems memorized, and I’m not talking about short poems. He recited each of them word for word.

John was concerned when I took pictures of his notebook because he photocopied the poems from other books and feared that if I published pictures of them he would be in some sort of legal hot water. Of course he wouldn’t be, but I have no doubt that if the authorities showed up to hassle him he would simply wow them with his awesome numbers trick and escape scot-free. Anyway, out of respect, the pictures I took will remain between us.

I also spent time with Gladys and Park Beatty. They met in San Diego while both were serving in the Navy at the end of World War II. They appear to be as much in love today as they were on their wedding day some 66 years ago. I spent several hours with them, Gladys showing off her paintings that adorn the walls of the couple’s room and Park telling me great tales from his life, such as the time he led child actress Shirley Temple on a horseback ride through Utah.

It warmed my heart to know Gladys and Park will spend the rest of their life together in a place that honors their past and values their present and future.

I highly recommend a visit to a veterans’ home at some point. I guarantee all you have to do is walk in the door and smile. The stories will be flowing before you know it. Just remember to tell your spouse you might be a little late getting home.