Eisenhower and I don’t see eye to eye about a military matter. At issue is the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). And the Eisenhower, in this case, is Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former chief executive who drew his last breath as a patient at Walter Reed. In recent reporting by the Associated Press (AP), Susan Eisenhower characterized the closing as an event she looked on “with a heavy heart.” She also subtly expressed her disapproval of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plan to shutter the facility, telling the AP: “I don’t know. I know that there was a process for that decision, but we’ve lost a great, important part of history.”
Perhaps the decision does invite some melancholy, but where boots hit the ground, the closing of WRAMC will not deprive our troops of one aspirin’s worth of care.
Without a doubt, the 102-year-old medical center was, as Eisenhower said, an important part of history. Advances made by WRAMC in prosthetic limb technology and amputee care have, themselves, been transformative, and the focus of several RM features in recent years. The decision to close the installation, however, was not irresponsible. The BRAC made the determination to end WRAMC’s run based on cost savings and the limitations of an aging facility. As the old hospital’s doors close and new doors open at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md—soon to be renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC)—several important benefits for the war-wounded will become available. These benefits, including an expanded amputee care facility, underscore the good sense behind the decision.
One strategic advantage the transition offers is the creation of a centralized hub for specialized care. The Bethesda facility will absorb approximately 60% of specialized care patients currently housed at WRAMC, including all amputee patients and patients affected by traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and other psychological problems. The new home for the Military Advanced Training Center for Soldier Amputees, operating since December 2010, is located in the basement of the 535,000-square-foot facility in Bethesda.
The move will also connect patients to The National Intrepid Center of Excellence for Traumatic Brain Injury and Psychological Health. This center, opened last year on the Bethesda campus, offers diagnostics, initial treatment plans, and education to families of armed forces personnel affected by TBI and psychological health issues. Among the sophisticated diagnostic imaging at the center is a 3 Tesla MRI, 64-slice PET/CT scanner, and Elekta Neuromag MEG (magnetoencephalography) scanner, one of only nine reported in clinical use in the United States.
In addition to revitalized care for amputees and TBI patients, WRNMMC will offer the services of Fisher House, a program that provides lodging at no charge on the grounds of major military and VA medical installations. The fee-free accommodations are characterized as “a home away from home” to families of injured armed forces personnel, so they may be close to their loved ones during hospitalization. There are now five Fisher Houses on the Bethesda campus; each is handicap accessible and outfitted with elevators. Fisher House Foundation Inc estimates its programs saved more than $17 million in combined costs of food, transportation, and lodging in 2010 for families it served.
Nothing about closing an aging and outgrown medical facility diminishes the good works of medical professionals and patients who once inhabited its brick and mortar shell. Arguments about whether the old hospital should have been closed will probably linger, especially wherever debate about national debt and fiscal policy arises. What should stand above any of the political arguments, however, is the sentiment expressed by singer Theresa Sareo in comments she made to the audience of a WRAMC alumni social in Washington, DC, where she performed recently. “The mission is about our soldiers,” Sareo reminded the crowd, gathered to hear her sing to a soldier who had lost his leg to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. “We love you. We thank you for your service and your sacrifice will never be forgotten.”