James J. Peters VA Medical Center
"Chill Like Bill" - Bronx VA Men's Group Therapy
Nobody would say that Bill Crain has a simple life. Diagnosed with "Lou Gehrig's Disease" (ALS) in 2011, everyday routines, like getting himself dressed, can represent a monumental chore. But Bill doesn't let life's challenges set him back. Instead, he forges ahead, inspiring others with his strength, quiet courage, and self-deprecating humor.
"When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I said to myself, 'why me?'" remembers Bill, sharing thoughts of a darker time, several years ago. "But then I came to my group here at the VA, where there are so many people who are a lot worse off. I started saying to myself, 'why not me?' and 'what am I going to make of this life?' I didn't want to just waste it lying in bed. I had a lot of life to live, and I had things to share."
And share he did. Bill is the longest participating member of a very large and robust group of Veterans who have come to the VA for more than a decade, to discuss whatever is on their minds. This group has covered a lot of ground over the years. From emotional anguish, to physical pain, there is nothing off limits. And to the participants in this group, Bill is a quiet leader. In the face of adversity, he inspires them to be strong. When things get emotional, the group will remind one another, evoking his inspiration: "Dude, chill like Bill."
"Bill never comes here, with a bad attitude," said Ron Hare, the group member who first coined the phrase, 'chill like Bill.' "Sometimes he's quiet, but he always listens and stays engaged. It can get rough with lots of emotion. When we come around the room to Bill, we look forward to it. He always has something humorous to say. It sort of puts things into perspective. With all he's going through, he just keeps cool, he keeps his head up, and he's there for us. That's how I came up with the phrase. I wanted to learn to handle my problems more like Bill. I think we can all be better off if we can learn to 'chill like Bill.'"
The group's staff leader is Psychologist, Kris Martin. He is the third organizer of this group in the 14 years that Bill has been coming. "We come together to discuss some pretty emotional things," said Martin, "From military experiences, to issues at home, or work. It can get intense. Bill participates and helps bring consensus. He gives others the credit for keeping him going, and they all give him credit for keeping them going. It's a very supportive relationship and it's both unique and inspiring - Vets helping Vets - it's an amazing thing to see."
On this particular visit, I am an invited guest of the group. I look around the small room, packed to the brim with 20 men of various ages. American heroes of every conflict since the Korean War. Every man in the group is wearing the same T-shirt. The shirt is simple, Khaki in color, with the phrase, "Chill Like Bill," in lime green lettering. It's an attractive shirt with a catchy and meaningful reminder, but there is another reason these Veterans are showing off their shirts. As all of them will tell you, Veterans helping Veterans is a legacy from their days in the military when the man (or woman) to your left and right had your back - your very life - in their hands. Along those lines, they wanted to show their support for the physical pains of their emotional leader. They pooled their money, bought the Chill Like Bill shirts, and they are selling them to raise money for ALS research. So far they are making about 6 dollars per shirt, all of which is going to the ALS foundation.
"It's hard to say where this will go," explained Dr. Martin, "But in a world that often leaves us feeling somewhat powerless, these men are making a strong statement about their affection for their comrade and they are putting their time and money into the effort. To say they inspire me would be an understatement. I consider myself very fortunate to be involved with such a solid group of guys. They are all heroes to me."
Editor's Note: If you are interested in buying a CHILL LIKE BILL shirt to support ALS research, contact Dr. Kristopher Martin at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center at 718-584-9000, ext. 3415.
Empowering Veterans to Improve their Well-being: A New Approach to Veteran-Centered Preventive Health Care
One of VA's key strategic goals is to "Empower Veterans to Improve their Well-being." In keeping with that goal, and in an effort to improve the delivery of preventive health care to our Veterans, the James J. Peters (Bronx) VA Medical Center, launched a high-intensity fitness Boot Camp. The aim of this program is to serve Veterans that VA has previously had little contact with, because they are younger and generally healthy, with few medical needs.
It is well known that exercise has a myriad of physical benefits, including the prevention of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Unfortunately, it is common to see our Veteran patients only after the onset of these life-changing events and disorders. With preventative programs like this high-intensity fitness Boot Camp, the Bronx VA Rehab Medicine staff hopes to intervene far earlier, and to help instill a tradition of exercise; bridging the gap between active service, and a successful and healthy life in the community.
Along with the physical benefits of exercise, there are significant psychological benefits. These benefits include stress relief, and providing a sense of connection in its participants. The Boot Camp is designed to offer a very intense workout; adequate for strong individuals, for whom traditional physical therapy programs, are not sufficiently challenging. For the most part, these prospective participants are recently discharged, and dealing with the stress of job hunting, beginning school, and adapting to, or starting families. For many of these individuals, only a very taxing, high-intensity work out will be fulfilling and stress-relieving.
The Boot Camp proposal was the brain-child of the Chief of Rehab medicine, Dr. Heidi Klingbeil. It was conceived as a means of enhancing options in Preventative Medicine. The high-intensity fitness model was chosen because of its popularity among young fitness enthusiasts, and because it is very expensive, in the fitness facilities that offer the programs. It is intended to offer something more rigorous to the younger, stronger group of Veterans, who might otherwise not be seeking care at VA. ""It is now widely accepted that regular exercise can prevent many of the serious illnesses, both physical and mental, that we later attempt to treat," stated Dr. Klingbeil. "As we strive to provide more effective, more efficient care, there is a new role for the group fitness class. These classes can start with the very low level of exercise, such as that offered in a MOVE class, and progress to various KT programs, and ultimately advance to a rigorous Boot Camp."
The proposal was enthusiastically embraced by Medical Center Director, Dr. Erik Langhoff, and implemented by Dr. Klingbeil and her staff; many of whom participated in training as co-instructors of high-intensity fitness training. The initial training was conducted by VA volunteer, Adam Kant, a personal trainer, and owner of Intrepid Gym, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Mr. Kant continues to participate in, and monitor the program. The program is housed on the Bronx VA campus, in a very motivating, Boot-Camp-like setting; a high-tech, climate controlled, domed Army tent, on loan from DRASH Corporation. The program is Co-pay free, like all preventative medicine programs in VA.
"We are receiving positive comments from Veterans and from staff" noted Dr. Klingbeil. "We are getting questions and referrals from multiple departments and working closely with our OEF/OIF program staff. We will be building this new program from scratch, with Veterans who are currently not among our rehab population. Our aim was to integrate the VA into the lives of our Veterans; to give them a healthy work out, a healthy outlook, and a relationship with VA health professionals, who will be there to sustain them, through the years."
The JJP High-Intensity Fitness Boot Camp is in the early stages of development, but its goals are ambitious and its potential is promising. Though the practice of medicine is far from a perfect science, one concept remains abundantly clear; developing healthy habits, early in one's life, can have multiple benefits in the years that follow. Vigorous physical exercise, is one healthy habit, worth promoting to our Veteran patients.
These feature articles and many others are previewed in the Spring 2014 issue of the VA NY/NJ Veterans Healthcare Network's Veterans Healthcare Advantage Wellness Magazine.