Summit Firsts

PVA associate executive director of medical services, Lana McKenzie (center) was presented with the Professional Advocacy Award during the PVA Summit in Orlando, Fla. Pictured with her is PVA President Al Kovach Jr (left) and PVA executive director Sherman Gillums Jr. Photo by Tracey Shifflett.
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Paralyzed Veterans of America hosts clinician and caregiver summit and expo

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Tons of rain, thunder and an impending tropical storm didn’t dampen the spirits of 840 registered attendees Tuesday at the 2016 Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Summit + Expo in Orlando, Fla.

The Renaissance Sea World Crystal Ballroom was filled to capacity as clinicians, researchers, caregivers and more from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and private institutions across the country gathered for the sixth annual summit. This year’s attendance is the highest to date.

The three-day summit is packed with more than 50 plenary and break-out sessions designed to explain new research studies and share best practices across multiple disciplines, in addition to an expo showcasing technology for veterans and patients with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D). It’s also an opportunity for clinicians to earn continuing education credits.

Besides the wealth of opportunities for health care professionals to learn and network, several people also were given awards for excellence in their respective fields. Most notably, one of PVA’s own received the first honor of its kind.

Lana McKenzie, PVA’s associate executive director of medical services, was presented with the first Homer S. Townsend Excellence in Professional Advocacy Award. A PVA member for 41 years, Townsend was PVA executive director since 2006 but stepped down last January because of health issues.

PVA associate executive director of medical services, Lana McKenzie (center) was presented with the Professional Advocacy Award during the PVA Summit in Orlando, Fla. Photo Brittany Martin.

PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. spoke of McKenzie’s devotion to the late Townsend’s care and the heartache she experienced when Townsend died from complications related to his SCI last February.

“I saw Lana McKenzie that morning and her face reflected the pain and loss that’s reflected on the faces of all nurses who choose SCI as a discipline,” Gillums said. “She experienced a grief that comes with the territory when one is responsible for giving veterans lifetime care. She exhibited true leadership throughout and demonstrated in her actions all the principles that Homer stood for: competence, selflessness courage and giving all she had until there was nothing left to give, then tapping a hidden reservoir she didn’t know she had to find she had more to give.”

McKenzie said it was amazing but also sad to receive the award, because “I’d rather Homer was still alive.”

“I’m a nurse, and I will always be a nurse, no matter where I go, what I do, and what level of service I get involved, it always comes back to home,” McKenzie said. “Homer reminded me of that every single time I charged into his office like I’ve had it, I’m done. He always had that calm, very wise voice, and he’d say pull up a chair and talk to me about it. But at the end of the day, I always go back and do what’s best for the providers because you’re the ones who are responsible for the quality of care that Homer and Paralyzed Veterans of America members need. We have a lot of work to do, and I intend to carry forward what Homer was passionate about.”

While McKenzie implored those present to “keep fighting,” PVA National President Al Kovach Jr., reminded the audience how far veterans’ care, SCI care in particular, has come.

“I met an old-timer, and he had rehabbed at the Bronx VA,” Kovach said. “He told me these stories about how bad it was at the Bronx in 1970 when he came home from Vietnam as a C3 quadriplegic, and he’d tell me stories I really couldn’t believe, and one of them, it’s my favorite … The aides would put the food cart next to him, but no one would actually feed him, so the other patients would come in and feed him. He’d end up with half his dinner on his chest, and he says that wasn’t bad until the rats came out at night.”

Kovach said he didn’t believe the stories until he read the cover story of the May 1970 edition of Life magazine, titled “The Forgotten Wounded.” The outrage that stemmed from that article prompted the VA to seek PVA’s help to improve conditions at its hospitals. Now, 46 years later, teams of doctors, nurses and architects from PVA still conduct VA site visits.

“We’re invited by the VA to make friendly recommendations on how to improve the quality of care for veterans like myself and Sherman,” Kovach said. “Sometimes it gets a little contentious, but we’re passionate about what we believe in. I know VA wants to do the right thing, and that’s why this collaboration has worked so well for the last 46 years.”

That collaboration also is the reason the summit was organized in the first place, Kovach said.

“We want to be able to teach and help you guys deliver better quality care to ourselves, it’s kind of self-serving, so we are definitely benefiting from all this, and you all will be benefiting from the collaboration for the next three days,” Kovach said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am when I am a patient of the hospital, and I ask the person who’s caring for me if they’ve attended the summit and they say, ‘Yes,” and I say ‘thank God.’”


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