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West Haven — More than 25 years after the original women's clinic opened at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center here, staff and female veterans, many of whom have been around since the beginning, celebrated the official opening of the new VA Connecticut Women's Health Center.
But the celebration wasn't as much about the new space — though direly needed — as it was about the meaning of it.
"When I think about what this clinic means to our women, it's not just the beautiful, physical space you see in front of us," said Dr. Lynette Adams, women veterans program manger, in remarks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new center on Friday. "But it's also really what we do here."
The clinic had 856 active patients in the last year, according to Adams.
The new center, which cost around $1.2 million, has been serving patients since September. The space previously served as a pain clinic.
The center has a staff of 13, including three primary care doctors, a nurse practitioner, two nurses, a licensed practical nurse, two gynecologists, three licensed mental health staff members and a front desk assistant, according to Adams.
"We are very much an integrated clinic," Dr. Luz Vasquez, the center's medical director, said.
Vasquez said the new space will enable the staff "to do some different kinds of integrative therapies like tele-health."
Army veteran Deb Rodriguez, "a proud 58 years old," has been a patient of the clinic since 1994.
While the center, along with the Women's Health Clinic at the VA Medical Center in Newington and the Vet Centers in Hartford and West Haven, offers specialized services for women, female veterans also can be served through the VA's various community-based outpatient clinics throughout the state.
Many who spoke at the ceremony said that the new space — a one-stop shop to meet the comprehensive health care needs of female veterans — provides a more private, dignified setting for the women served there.
The clinic previously was housed in the basement of the main building on the West Haven campus.
Program sheets handed out at the ceremony included the tagline "She Also Served" at the bottom.
"We've come a long way, baby, but we got a long way to go," Rodriguez said during her remarks.
While she liked the old space because it was "away from everything else," it was no longer sufficient. Women were having to wait an hour, an hour and a half for an appointment, Rodriguez said. "This was a godsend."
The continuity of care is what's been most beneficial to Rodriguez.
"Knowing that when I call, somebody knows who I am. They know my issues and they know how to treat me. That's been the biggest thing for me," she said.
Rodriguez learned about the clinic many years ago during a visit to the emergency room when she was "fortunate enough" to meet Jane Sarja, a longtime employee of the clinic and the women veterans program coordinator until she retired two years ago.
Sarja's name came up several times during the ceremony. She was credited with coming up with the idea for the new space and making it happen.
The original clinic opened in 1990, according to Sarja, who remembered serving 169 patients in those days.
"We grew by leaps and bounds," she said, meaning an increase in both the types of services provided and the number of patients served.
Part of her job as coordinator was to advocate for women's health care needs "including this space," Sarja said.
Every opportunity she got, she talked about expanding the space. When she retired, she vowed not to come back until the new space was complete.
While listening to anecdotes about the "meager services" in the clinic's early days, she turned to a former colleague and said "the stories we could tell" about what the team had to pull together back then.
Gerald Culliton, director of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, recalled his "first day here several years ago" when he met a young woman veteran who worked at the clinic and who he invited and attended Friday's ceremony.
The woman asked Culliton if she could show him something: the women's clinic downstairs.
"It wasn't that she was showing off the space, because you know the space itself had its own challenges and so forth, but what she was showing me was the spirit," Culliton said. "She was showing me a sense of love that happened and the family amongst veterans and staff down there."
Even though it was in the basement, "it was really one of the first original women's clinic in the VA," Sally Haskell, VA deputy chief consultant for women's health service and VA director of comprehensive women's health, said in her remarks.
Nationally, 600,000 women are enrolled for care through the VA, according to Haskell, who said that there are about 80 of "these comprehensive women's clinics" across the nation.
Connecticut's female veteran population is more than 16,000, according to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.
"This clinic just builds on the great work that you have done here in West Haven to take care of women veterans," DeLauro said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also spoke at the ceremony.
"You go to a run-down, decrepit and uninviting place and you're not going to feel as good about the medical care or about yourself or the prospects for getting better, and that's one of the reasons why this space is so important," Blumenthal said.