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VA Improves Care for Growing Number of Female Vets

On this Veteran’s Day, we’re going to focus on the VA's efforts to improve health care for women.

As female soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, they encountered a VA system that had mostly served men.

So, the hospital here in Milwaukee and others have worked to welcome women and enhance services for them, including for breast cancer. Its risk seems higher for military women than civilians.

We met a Navy veteran who says her exceptional care is helping her heal from a life-changing diagnosis.

“My name is Loraine Davison and I’m a veteran of the United States Navy, which I served for 16 years.”

Davison enlisted when she was 24 years old. Her missions took her all over the world – Turkey, Malta, the Caribbean. In 2004, she deployed to Afghanistan aboard the USS John F. Kennedy.

“Being a gunner’s mate, I mostly protected the ship. So I’m always looking out trying to make sure that everything is good,” Davison says.

Davison says she always felt more comfortable and happy in the military than outside of it.

“Even though it’s what you make of it, it’s got to be the best decision you could ever make in your life. And the reason I say that is, you get to go to sleep knowing that you’re protecting your family at home,” Davison says.

Davison says she would have stayed the full 20 years required to retire, but life had other plans.

During a routine physical in 2010, doctors discovered a mass in her throat. They worried it might become cancerous, so they removed her thyroid.

“And then after that I think in 2011, at age of 40, I went for my first mammogram,” Davison says.

Doctors found late-stage breast cancer.

“That almost killed me. My life changed from night to day and it seemed like everything started happening one after another,” Davison says.

A 2009 study from Walter Reed Army Medical Center found higher rates of breast cancer among military women than their civilian counterparts. Researchers say female soldiers may face exposure to more carcinogens or undergo more-frequent screenings for breast cancer.

“Now there’s a much higher percentage of women in the military and of course, they’re entering that risk group, around 30, 35, so we will see more of this,” Sanger says.

Dr. Jim Sanger is Loraine Davison’s surgeon. He’s been with the VA more than three decades.

“Until the mid-90s, we saw almost no women that were seeking reconstruction and very few primary breast cancers were treated here,” Sanger says.

Now with more cases surfacing, Sanger says one VA initiative is to ensure that every woman having a lumpectomy or mastectomy knows about her options for reconstruction. The hospital also offers testing for genes that indicate an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. And, Sanger says, after a diagnosis, women receive mental health services – and everything is covered.

“One of the things as a soldier they teach them is that you shouldn’t leave people behind, if you have an injured comrade or someone who’s fallen. And the VA, despite what some people think, has tremendous amount of effort going in to make sure these people are not left behind,” Sanger says.

“It’s just a long, long, long, process, but they did overall, awesome job. They did a very awesome job,” Davison says.

Navy veteran Loraine Davison lives in Illinois, but came to the Milwaukee VA hospital for treatment. Surgeons performed a mastectomy, and step-by-step over nearly two years, reconstructed her breast.

Davison says the care is not exactly what she had expected. While on active duty, she heard negative stories – women vets unhappy with their health care or uncomfortable going to hospitals filled with men.

VA officials have acknowledged shortcomings in the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In recent times, the Milwaukee hospital has created a clinic for women vets, such as Davison.

“I’m so happy, my only focus is to get well. I don’t have to worry about this bill coming through the mail, making this situation more stressful than it already is,” Davison says.

The 41-year-old plans to get healthy and then serve eight years in the Reserves in order to qualify for a military pension.

In the meantime, she’s taking cooking classes.

“I got a passion for food and I know food make people happy and I’m all about making people happy,” Davison says.