Archive

Archive for July 8, 2012

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center

July 8, 2012 2 comments

Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news.  This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions.  It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies.  The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities.  Of course, much good is done as well.  But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.

 

 

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center                

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.

After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.

A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”

Raising Hell
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”

Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”

 

 

 

 

Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”

Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”

Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.

 

 

A Thorn-in-the-Side
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.

As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.

According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.

Standing Guard
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”

While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”

Advertisements

Lara Marsh’s breath of life

July 8, 2012 1 comment

Here’s a story I did a couple years ago or so about an Omaha theater stalwart, Lara Marsh, who’s touched many people with her winning personality and generous spirit and those good vibes and works have come back to her ten fold as she battles cystic fibrosis and faces the prospect of a double lung transplant.  This story appeared on the eve of a fundraiser for her, one of many such events that the local theater community has organized on her behalf.

 

 

 

 

Lara Marsh’s breath of life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“Got Oxygen? This question on top of Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet is very funny and ironic at the same time. I immediately bought a T-shirt and the expression always makes me smile. But this question, in Omaha at 936 feet, somehow loses all its humor.”
Cystic Fibrosis survivor Lara Marsh in her online journal/blog

Veteran Omaha stage manager Lara Marsh is in a fight for her life with Cystic Fibrosis. The inherited, chronic disease produces a thick, sticky mucus that impairs the respiratory and digestive systems. She needs $55,000 to get the double lung transplant required for her only chance at anything like a normal life span. She’s already exceeded CF life expectancies.

“When I was 4 the doctors told my parents I would never see 5. When I was 5, I wasn’t supposed to make it past 8. At 8, the average life expectancy was 14. The average death age for a female now is 37, and I’m 39, so I’ve done really well, but for me it’s unacceptable to die that young.”

Her sister Amy had her life cut short by CF at 18. By contrast, Lara’s married and the step mother of five children. She travels. She’s a college graduate (University of Nebraska at Omaha). She enjoys a career as Nebraska Theatre Caravan Artistic Coordinator/Apprentice Coordinator at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where she also stage manages. She’s beaten the odds. She also can’t recall when illness was not part of her life.

“It doesn’t define me and yet it’s made me a big part of who I am. It’s just all I remember. I am very much a positive person always striving for goals,” she said. “I remember as a small child joking but not really joking with my doctor, ‘You can’t retire until I die because I’m going to be the oldest living CFer in the world.’
Of course, the older you get reality comes into play, seeing the progression of the disease, knowing where I’m really at compared to where I wish I was at. Another whole side of this is the pride factor of showing people I’m a human being dealing with this. I don’t like to show the negativity, I don’t like to show the weakness.”

Lara’s lately revealed more about living with the disease via campaigns raising funds for her transplant needs. Her thespian peers, along with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, have organized Places, Please! benefits at area theaters. Playwright/director Kevin Lawler said Lara’s positive vibe attracts much support. “She is the most talented stage manager I have ever worked with, a real artist, and one of the most fantastic people I have ever met. She is deeply beloved by the entire theater community in Omaha. A truly exceptional person.” He said her “extraordinary story” is literally “a race against time.”

More than $45,000 has been raised on her behalf. COTA matches some monies raised. Proceeds from this Saturday’s noon to 6 p.m. Lungs for Lara event at Sumtur Amphitheater at Walnut Creek in Papillion will go toward her transplant fund. The organizers are Random Acts of Kindness, COTA, Places, Please! and Cells for Life. There will be raffles, booths, a karaoke competition, a bounce house, live bands and food. Admission is a used cell phone or ink cartridge or a $5 donation.

 

 

 

 

Lara’s symptoms sometimes prevent her from attending such events. It may be exhaustion or infection. Coughing jags are frequent. The worst thing about CF, she said, “is knowing it’s never going to get better without the transplant. And as much as I try to do the regimens (respiratory treatments, antibiotic IVs, exercise) I’m supposed to and live life and be positive and do this, and do that, the progression still happens, and I really got hit in the face with that last year. Big time.” Her Forced Expiratory volume levels dropped, necessitating she go on oxygen.

“It’s not like I did anything to bring it on, it just happened, and so as much as I try to do to prevent it my body reminds me, Hey, this is still going to happen, whether you like it or not. Essentially, I’m not a 39 year-old. My insides are more like a 60-somethings. And so when I catch a cold or whatever it’s slower for my body to recover. You never know about side effects or other things that could go wrong, especially with a transplant.”

A reminder of the dangers is the experience of Amy, who died of complications from the procedure.

“I’m not afraid to get the transplant,” said Lara. “I already decided a long time ago I would do it. I just want to get it over with, really. I’m ready to move on with my life. But I’m nervous about how my body will react and how long it will take to recoup.”

Periodic hospitalizations take Lara away from what she loves most — friends, family, the theater. Because CF’s been her lifetime companion she’s had the bittersweet experience of befriending and losing fellow travelers.

“There’s been some CFers I’ve gotten close with and most of them have died. All the ones I knew growing up have passed. This one gal I knew, we had a 20-year friendship, and she passed last year. She’s the last one.”

Still, Lara seeks out other sufferers, even though meeting entails risks. “We can be a danger to each other if we are near one another and are contagious, and so we exercise what we call the three-foot rule — stay at least three feet from each other. And don’t touch. It’s harder for us to get to know each other now because of HIPPA privacy laws.” Despite red tape, she manages finding folks who defy the odds. “I’ve definitely been exposed to enough negative results that I need to find some positive ones, so I’ve been meeting some patients who are doing really well .”

She resists limitations. “One thing my doctors and I recently talked about is my CF could reach a point where I have to quit work, and I told them I can’t fathom it, it’s unacceptable…” Her precious travel could also be curtailed. “It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. Something CF has contributed to is me wanting to experience the most out of life, to see anything and everything I can. I have a goal to see all 50 states. I have about seven left. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Her “ultimate dream” is visiting Australia, and not just for the beaches. “I’ve loved Koalas since I was a little kid…I want to go pet a Koala.”

“Recovery is not like it used to be and that is disturbing.”
Lara Marsh blog entry

Visit COTA’s Web site for Lara, which contains her blogs, at www.cotaforlaram.com.

 

 

 

 


For love of art and cinema, Danny Lee Ladely follows his muse

July 8, 2012 2 comments

When I wrote the following article in the early 2000s the alternative cinema landscape in Nebraska was very different than it is today.  The profile subject of the story, Danny Lee Ladely, headed the only dedicated art cinema in the state, what was then called the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater but which came to be known as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center , located in Lincoln, Neb. At roughly twice the size of Lincoln, Omaha had no such venue.  Neither could one be found anywhere else in the state.  That’s changed with the addition of Film Streams in Omaha, where Rachel Jacobson is the metro’s equivalent to Ladely in running and programming a full fledged art cinema complete with screenings of the best in contemporary film, along with repertory programs, visiting filmmakers, Q&As, and panel discussions.  The Omaha Film Festival has added another dimension to the film scene.  And there have been concerted efforts to restore long abandoned neighborhood and small town theaters.  This is all familiar territory for me, as I used to be a film programmer in Omaha and I appreciate any attempts to engage and energize the cinema culture here.  Ladely was way out in front of anyone in Nebraska in nurturing an alternative film culture and what he’s accomplished with the Ross in Lincoln is remarkable, including the new facility he got built courtesy of the cinema’s major patroness and namesake, Mary Riepma Ross.   My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as the facility was under construction.  It’s been operational for years now and now that Film Streams in Omaha has provided a comparable venue in Omaha, the area’s once rather stark art cinema landscape has turned bountiful.  It took the vision and will of Ladely and Jacobson (who’s profiled on this blog) to make it happen.

 

For love of art and cinema, Danny Lee Ladely follows his muse 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

With his braided pony tail, arrowhead-pattern shirt, blue jeans, boots and Stetson hat, Nebraska film guru Dan Lee Ladely looks like a holdover from the 1960s, when the Gordon, Neb. native was in fact an anti-war demonstrator in college. During his undergrad days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a degree in English lit between showing films for the student council, he once led a takeover of the campus ROTC building. These days the 50-something Ladely is an activist for the aesthetic, educational and entertainment value of the moving image and more and more his cinema dreams loom large on the horizon.

As construction proceeds on the new Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater (MRRFT) at 13th and P Streets in Lincoln, the new home for the nationally recognized alternative film program Ladely’s overseen since 1973, he daily watches his dreams taking shape from the temporary office he and his small staff occupy a block away. Once the theater opens in early 2003 he plans an ambitious exhibition schedule that will give cinephiles access to see American independent, first-run foreign and classic films the way they’re meant to be seen and opportunities to meet emerging and established filmmakers. Two auditoriums, equipped for film, digital and video projection, will provide flexible exhibition space to show a large, diverse menu of feature, documentary and short films as well as video art pieces. Plans call for the theater’s Great Plains Film Festival, a celebration of regional indie film which Ladely inaugurated, to continue unreeling there every other year.

The new theater will replace the auditorium the program exhibited in at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, located within a block of the new site.

The MRRFT is an anomaly. Where art houses and alternative film series have failed in more populous Omaha, Ladely’s program has survived 30 years in Lincoln of all places and now, in the midst of a recession, is embarking on a new building program.

It is a stunning accomplishment, especially in the capitol of such a conservative state, because the pitfalls to success in the art film market are legion. Among the obstacles to running any art house in today’s environment are: the tight economy; the fact that indie films regularly play at commercial cineplexes; and the encroaching presence of cable television, video-DVD and the Internet, media formats that feature much of the same kind of fare art houses used to be the exclusive outlet for.

Now, a film buff outfitted with a home theater system can select from the market’s glut of viewing choices and, in effect, be his or her own film programmer. In addition to this competition, Ladely’s program faces additional constraints in the form of: budget cuts, as his theater is partly subsidized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where it is a department within the College of Fine and Performing Arts; the whims of private and public contributors it depends on for the bulk of its funding; and ever higher operating costs. All of which might lead one to wonder if this is the right time to build a new theater?

“There still is a place and a need for this program and I think people will respond,” a reflective and soft-spoken Ladely said. “I think people will come out, at least at the beginning out of curiosity, in pretty good numbers. The new building is going to do one thing for us. We were sort of hidden in the Sheldon Art Gallery. I think being in an art museum kind of put some people off and now that we won’t be there we have the possibility of a whole new audience.”

The mission of the theater, which he said he “sort of created out of thin air” over the years, has always been “to provide an alternative venue for true commercial cinema and to bring films here that wouldn’t get shown here otherwise.”

 

 

 

 

He said the proliferation of art films on cable and video/DVD has made it “harder and harder” to stay true to that vision. But the one thing MRRFT can still provide is a state-of-the-art space where you can watch these films in the manner in which they were meant to be seen, namely, a theater. He said regardless of how elaborate one’s home theater system is, “it’s still not the same” as the real thing. “No matter what happens in the future there’s always going to be a place for the film theater because film is really still a social event. Even though you’re there in the dark, there’s an audience and the audience reacts and that’s part of the experience. It’s totally different when you’re home alone.” Plus, there’s the dearth of alternative film exhibition in Nebraska, where except for the Dundee Theater, art houses have come and gone, the most recent being the short-lived Brandeis Art Cinema.

As Ladely points out, “There isn’t any other alternative place in this whole area right now where you can see these films.”

Much of what Ladely envisions has already been done from its old site in the currently closed Sheldon Art Gallery, where a major renovation under way has put a halt to the film program’s exhibition schedule until the new theater is completed. For years the program has been the state’s best and most consistent venue for presenting what used to be called underground cinema and the people who make it.

Where many like programs in Omaha once thrived but eventually folded, including those of the New Cinema Cooperative, the Joslyn Art Museum and the UNO Student Programming Organization, Ladely’s has continued uninterrupted for 30 years. How? Part of the answer lies in the fact the Lincoln program has enjoyed a measure of institutional support unknown elsewhere in this state owing to the legacy of the man who formed it and hired Ladely to run it, Sheldon’s director emeritus Norman Gesky, and to Ladely’s own passion for creating something of world-class stature. Ladely also had hands-on experience running two theaters in his native Gordon. Long a step-child of the Sheldon, where the MRRFT eventually lost favor under the man who succeeded Gesky as director, George Neubert, who cut the exhibition schedule and made life uneasy for Ladely, the theater is now poised to have its own stand-alone facility and identity.

And then there’s the one factor separating the theater from its imitators — Mary Riepma Ross. The retired New York lawyer is not only the theater’s namesake but its most ardent patron, biggest contributor and tenacious protector. A former UNL undergraduate student who fell in love with the movies as a young girl living in Lincoln, she was serving on the University Foundation board of trustees in the 1970s when then-chancellor Durwood “Woody” Varner put her in touch with the Sheldon’s Geske, a fellow film buff just beginning to shape plans for a full-fledged film program. She bought into Geske’s vision and, according to Ladely, “pledged she would support the program, which she’s obviously done. She started very early on sending us financial donations.”

In 1990, with the then Sheldon Film Theater struggling financially after a round of state budget cuts and slowly but surely being squeezed into oblivion by a director (Neubert) unfriendly toward the program, Ladely sent her a letter outlining his bold dream for a new theater space that would give the program a solid, independent foundation for survival and growth. It was just an idea. Ladely didn’t even ask for money. Amazingly, her response was to donate 3.5 million dollars in an irrevocable trust, a giant windfall for an arts organization of any size anywhere, but a truly extraordinary and unprecedented commitment for a film series in the Midwest. The Sheldon Film Theater quickly became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater.

Ladely, who has a portrait of his benefactress hanging in his office, said, “She’s actually the perfect patron. She has really impeccable tastes in film and she loves the kind of films we show. She sees them in New York and often writes to me and sends in articles about films she’s seen and makes recommendations to me. And very often they’re films we’re considering and we end up showing.”

In the new space Ladely anticipates reviving some activities he was forced to abandon during leaner times, such as film retrospectives, artist showcases and screening seven nights a week. In the past he has brought to Lincoln prominent filmmakers and actors with local ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Fonda and  John Beasley. And now for the first time the theater will sell concessions, including popcorn, a new revenue stream he’s counting on to help defray expenses. He would also like to resume the theater’s long dormant touring film exhibition program and to share programs with other organizations, such as a film series it cooperatively presented with the Joslyn a few years ago.

There’s even more Ladely would like to do, but he admits all his plans are ultimately “contingent upon whether or not we can come up with enough money to keep the program going.” That’s why Ladely is using this down time while the MRRFT marquee is blank to write grants and solicit funds. Even if successful in securing enough money for the new theater’s operating budget, he is left with the nagging realization that attendance just isn’t what it used to be for documentaries by Emile De Antonio, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker (all of whom appeared at the old theater at one time or another) or for Hollywood classics or for the best emerging cinema from places like Iran.

Even in its fattest years, he said, “if the university hadn’t been paying all the utilities…we couldn’t have survived as a stand-alone theater in a market this size.” That, and the fact the theater is about to come out of the shadows and expand in every way, has made for “sleepless nights” for Ladely, who is left “wondering how we’re going to do it.”

But, if nothing else, Ladely is an evangelist for film. He has a way of making you see the stars in his eyes when he discusses the kind of cinema he sees at the Telluride and Sundance festivals and that makes him compelled to share it with audiences here.

“I’m really interested in what’s going on now. What’s coming out. What’s the next big thing. Who’s doing what. I’m always interested in new filmmakers. And I’m very interested in what’s happening locally. One of the major things we’ll be doing in the small theater is have an open screening night where local filmmakers show their films. We’ll be able to show them in almost any format.” He said he keeps tabs on the local filmmaking scene and expects more new filmmakers to surface as technology makes moviemaking, especially the digital variety, more accessible and affordable, “That’s going to be very exciting — to see what comes out of that.”

Despite shrinking attendance for things like politically-charged documentaries, he will continue programming quality cinema regardless of how little box office potential it has, because that is part of what an alternative film series is all about, particularly one allied with a university.

“We have to balance this out between showing stuff that’s very esoteric and very important, even if there’s just one person in the audience, and showing stuff that’s more popular and generates a bigger audience. Just like there are classes that are real popular and classes that aren’t popular but are really important and you have to have, there are some kinds of films people don’t want to see but it’s absolutely important that, for example, film students see them in order to get a well-rounded education. The university has these burgeoning film studies and new media programs and I think our program definitely serves a need for those students.” Reality also dictates the theater at least break even, which means Ladely must show slightly more mainstream fare or at least indie cinema with a strong buzz behind it in the hope that better box office returns offset losses incurred on more obscure selections.

%d bloggers like this: