Syracuse VA Offers Help at its Women’s Wellness Center

With growing number of female veterans, VA center now serves 4,100 patients

By Mary Beth Roach

As the number of female veterans continues to increase nationwide, the patient caseload and the programs offered at Women’s Wellness Center at the Syracuse VA Medical Center reflects that growth.

According to a report released by the U.S. Census in June of 2020, 9% of the veterans were women; and it’s projected that that number will jump to 17% by 2040.

Meanwhile, the Women’s Health Clinic, which opened in the 1980s, now serves approximately 4,100 patients.

“We continue to steadily increase the number of female veterans using our services,” said social worker Hillary Cashier, women veterans program manager and maternity care coordinator at the Syracuse VA. In addition to the main Women’s Wellness Center in Syracuse, there are seven community-based outpatient clinics in Auburn, Binghamton, Massena, Oswego, Rome, Tompkins/Cortland County and Watertown that all have designated women’s health providers.

“Women want to partner with us with their care. They want to be involved, they want to have discussions, they want to be part of their healthcare planning. They connect with our providers,” Cashier said.

The Women’s Wellness Center has a multidisciplinary and patient-centered approach, with multiple specialties and patient-aligned care teams, said physician Harminder Grewal, women’s health medical director for the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

The teams include a physician, nurses, a pharmacist, social worker, mental health provider, whole health coach, medical support assistant and a dietitian.

In addition, the center offers gynecological and urological exams.

“All of us can work together and manage the patient in a team format so we can meet their needs,” Grewal said.

She further explained, the Women’s Wellness Center’s whole health system of care “incorporates patient empowerment and patient goal-setting.”

“We don’t just support the medical concerns,” said Cashier. “We are taking care of the whole patient, not just the patient’s medical concerns.”

“We have a pretty high percentage of women who have faced many physical and emotional traumas being in the service,” Grewal said.

Women veterans have very high co-morbidity of chronic pain; rheumatological conditions and mental health concerns, such anxiety, depression and post-traumatic disorder, according to Grewal. The physical and mental health needs of female veterans sometimes vary in nature from their male counterparts and females who have not served in the military.

With the whole health holistic approach, patients can receive personalized health coaching and health planning, patient empowerment, peer support, activities like yoga and qigong, aerobic activities, meditation, mindfulness, guided imagery, acupuncture, acupressure, massage therapy, whole body acupuncture, chiropractic, chronic pain management and biofeedback, Grewal said.

The VA provides preventative care, including immunizations and cancer screenings (breast, cervical, colon and lung), osteoporosis screening and management. In addition to birth control, family planning and pre-conception counseling, the VA pays for maternity care services in the community for pregnant female patients. The maternity care coordinator will assist the patient in finding a private healthcare provider in the area, and the costs are covered by the VA under the maternity care benefit.

Currently, Grewal said they have 35 patients who are pregnant. The VA maternity care coordinator and VA team coordinate care, calling the mothers-to-be throughout the pregnancy, discussing available programs and services and providing pregnancy positioning pillows and back supports, if needed. The VA will pay for the first seven days of life, which usually includes the baby’s first pediatric visit and it can provide a lactation package and post-partum belts, if the new mothers are interested, Cashier said.

New moms will also receive items to help with their newborns, including diapers, wipes, bottle bags, pacifiers and a new outfit. Many of these gifts are donated by community partners, such as the VFW auxiliaries and the gold star mothers. The VA Baby Shower and Expo, held in May of each year, is for VA-enrolled case-managed mothers in the maternity care program and provides them with helpful information, as well as networking opportunities with other veteran mothers. Also, new mothers will receive a maternity care resource guide.

The center also offers other initiatives that go beyond the physical aspects of the female veterans’ health.

A military sexual trauma support group is offered weekly, with meetings currently being held virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new program, begun in April of this year, is called healthy, emotional and physical living support group for female veterans, female caregivers and female veteran partners.

Other initiatives include a school supply project, a holiday gift program, the breast cancer survivorship program, virtual women veteran art group, the virtual healthy teaching kitchen, a Women’s Health Clinic whole foods plant-based cookbook, the International Women’s Day and Respect Expo and a resource library.

With the number of female veterans on the rise, Cashier and Grewal said the Syracuse VA is committed to providing high-quality services and the Women’s Health Center leadership continually assess their programs, review feedback from participants and try to anticipate the increases, so they can provide the right number of providers.

To receive these healthcare services, the female veterans need to be enrolled in the VA program.

For more information on how to register or to learn more about the program, visit www.syracuse.va.gov/services/women or contact Cashier at Hillary.cashier@va.gov. or at 315-425-4400, ext. 53866.

Photo: Physician Harminder Grewal, women’s health medical director for the Syracuse VA Medical Center, left, and social worker Hillary Cashier, women veterans program manager and maternity care coordinator at the Syracuse VA.