“Thank you for your service.”
We commonly hear these words at this time of year, as we celebrate and honor military veterans and the enduring impact of their service on our country and our lives.
This impact may be most apparent in the service roles we typically associate with the military, such as frontline missions, peacekeeping tours and crisis relief.
What may not be as evident is that once veterans return to their communities, many of them continue to give their time and experience in a different kind of service, as patients in the Veterans Affairs (VA) health system.
The Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care system in the United States and serves over 9 million veterans across nearly 1,300 health care facilities, including 19 medical centers and clinics across Minnesota. Ninety percent of these facilities participate in medical training programs affiliated with academic institutions and provide foundational teaching and learning experiences to 75,000 trainees annually.
I was one of those trainees fortunate to take care of VA patients during medical school and residency. Trainees often have more time to spend with their patients, and my VA patients were always eager to share their fascinating stories with me — the daily routine of life aboard a submarine, the mystery of a missing button during a uniform inspection, a memorable week on leave in Paris.
What I didn’t realize at the time was just how much these VA patients were honing my skills and shaping my professional identity.
During one clinic visit, I was listening to my patient’s heart and struggling to hear the murmur that he had. Seeing me fumble with my stethoscope, he gently moved my hand a bit further across his chest.
“All the docs seem to hear it right around here,” he whispered, as if letting me in on a secret.
Sure enough — the classic blowing murmur of mitral valve regurgitation.
The lessons I learned at the VA were also profound. During residency, I had the privilege of taking care of a veteran with advanced prostate cancer, where the cancer cells had spread to other parts of the body. His prostate cancer care at the VA had spanned 20 years, from his initial diagnosis and surgery, to his later treatment with radiation and hormone therapy when the cancer returned.
I grew fond of this patient over the several years I took care of him at the VA. But despite advances in cancer therapy — and my best intentions — his disease did not respond, and his cancer progressed. I was devastated.
At our last visit together, I told him I felt like I had failed him as his doctor. But he shook his head.
“You can’t always win the war, but did you give it your best fight?” he asked, seeming to echo words he had once heard.
Yes, of course.
Then there was nothing to be sorry for, he counseled me, and every reason to fight another day — a lesson I’ve held close every day since.
In short, while my textbooks and professors trained me to be a good physician, my patients at the VA guided me to becoming the doctor I am today.
Now, in the spirit of honoring their service, we have an opportunity to thank our veterans by advancing the care they receive at the VA.
The Veterans’ Prostate Cancer Treatment and Research Act (H.R. 4880/S. 2720) would establish a national clinical pathway to improve prostate cancer care in the Veterans Health Administration. The bill would standardize evidence-based treatment options and track real-time outcomes to ensure the highest quality care for all VA patients.
This is important because prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis among U.S. veterans. Service members who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War have an increased risk of prostate cancer. Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest segment of veterans in Minnesota, so this bipartisan legislation is especially important to VA patients in our communities.
As a physician who takes care of prostate cancer patients, and as one among the thousands of trainees who became more skillful and compassionate caring for veterans at the VA, I ask that we urge our members of Congress to support the Veterans’ Prostate Cancer Treatment and Research Act.
By advancing policies that support the best possible health care for veterans, we can honor their sacrifice and sustain the legacy of their service, both to the nation and to generations of health care professionals.
Kevin Koo, M.D., is a urologist in Rochester.