Bonding at the V.A.

Ready to serve a Marine in need

I’m not saying I didn’t take him seriously, but when Roberto stood up and declared that he was going to his shop to get a pair of curved pliers so he could pull out his tooth…I took notice. He had been pretty stoic for a few days, until he snapped. It was unbearable. We found some oxycodone (expired in 2012) in the medicine drawer and that seemed like an excellent alternative to pulling the tooth out with whatever was handy on his workbench. It worked wonders and kept him relatively pain free, or at least oblivious, over the weekend. On Monday he called the VA dental clinic and declared himself an emergency and was told to come in first thing Tuesday morning as a walk-in.

VA Medical Center, Albuquerque

The VA Medical Center in Albuquerque is an hour away, so we got up extra early and, coffee in hand, I drove us to the promised land of tooth pain relief. It is a huge facility, and the moment you walk in the door it is clear that this is a place serving veterans with all kinds of needs, physical and emotional. Roberto, a combat Marine in Vietnam, says that visiting the VA is kind of unsettling for him, bringing up memories he would prefer to leave untapped. More on my reaction below.

We found our way to the dental floor and signed in. A super friendly and sympathetic young man at the reception desk listened to Roberto and observed that one side of his jaw was a little swollen, very observant, I thought, for a receptionist. He explained that Roberto would have to wait since they were really busy with those who had appointments, but that they would get to him as soon as they could. He checked on us periodically, reassuring Roberto that it wouldn’t be long.  We settled down in the waiting area, watching those with appointments come and go. Most patients were men of the Vietnam era, a few younger, a few older. And one young woman, a sign of the changing face of the armed services. We had been there almost two hours and the oxycodone was beginning to wear off, when Roberto was called and ushered into the tooth extraction suite.

As I sat among the other partners and spouses I felt a deep camaraderie. I knew no one, but I knew something of their experiences. We chatted in the waiting area, talking about dogs and restaurants and grandchildren. One showed me the book she was reading about how to deal with anxiety and we had a chuckle about how that was probably not going to happen for us. We read magazines, glancing up to see if one of our mates was returning. There was a calmness and patience about them, a commitment, a love that I recognized. We were members of the same club, just as our spouses were fellow service men. We had an understanding of each other, a bond we knew intimately. I was moved by my time shared with these women.

An hour later Roberto emerged minus the tooth. With a lopsided smile he profusely thanked the dentist, Dr. Greg Buerschen, who to our surprise turned out to be that nice young man who had checked us in. It was a great experience, Roberto said, such a skilled and kind dentist and his warm and gentle assistant, Winona Dan. We picked up a prescription for a more appropriate pain medication,  and then we were on our way home. For all their bad press, the VA came through…for both of us. I thought about those women, my fellow club members, and sent them warm wishes, as they, too, returned home with their loved ones.

14 thoughts on “Bonding at the V.A.”

  1. Bravo!!! VA came through for Roberto. Nothing worse than a darn tooth ache.
    Reminded me of my late uncle Myles Martinez who was a WW11 veteran and he “preferred” to go all the way to Albuq. to the VA hospital than to the IHS in Santa Fe. He had his “personal ” reasons he would always say. I met them once at the VA waiting room while I had other business in Albuq., knowing they would be there I chanced seeing them. As I read your story about “camaraderie” in the waiting room (I wonder if it is still the same room as it was back in the late 1970s) I recalled chatting with others there. My aunt was always cautious to speak with strangers but I never had that problem…….
    Anyway, thank you for memories recalled Lucy. Always love your blogs. Much love and admiration for you and Roberto.

    1. I love your uncle Myles, especially his choice of words about preferring the VA for “personal” reasons. I’ll bet they were very personal indeed. And bless you, Ella, for never hesitating to speak to a stranger!

  2. Dear Lucy( and Roberto),
    I’m so glad you had a great experience at the Albuquerque VA. They served my Dad, a Purple Hear WWII Army vet, and my brother, a Both of them preferred going there to elsewhere, despite the fact that they often had to wait.As you mention, a special sense of camaraderie made the visits memorable. . My husband, an Army vet, has visited our Santa Fe clinic and loves Dr. Dummer up here, So do I.

    1. Blessings to your Dad and your brother. And so glad Dr. Dummer is in your life — we have another friend who is basically in love with Dr. Dummer. Roberto is devoted to his local VA doctor, Dr. Como. VA is smart to hire women doctors!

  3. Well done I felt I was in the waiting room with you. Those unexpected but deep connections with others who share your state of mind.

  4. what an apt posting so close to memorial day. thank you.
    we hear such negatives about government these days, but most government workers – from military personnel, to admin staff, to professionals – do their jobs remarkably and responsibly like the VA staff described here. my colleagues when i was in government service were dedicated to contributing to the best of what our country was and what it could be.
    it must take strong character to work in government today, to hold on to the vision of a country that has integrity and generosity as well as strength. thank you to all who serve and have served.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment. I couldn’t agree more that government workers deserve a ton of credit, especially these days. I have colleagues and clients in federal agencies who are really struggling in very demoralizing circumstances. For me, my appreciation of the federal civil servant is personal — both my sons work for the federal government (Commerce and USAID) doing their best to better the lives of people in other countries who are suffering in terms of health, welfare, economy, environment and more.

  5. Nice writing, Lucy! My nephew, a Navy Corpsman, worked at the VA in Albuquerque for many years. He’s moved back east now, and works at the Naval Hospital in Kittery, ME. I’m glad to hear that your lovely boys are doing good work.

    1. Thanks, Marie, and much appreciation for your nephew’s work. Roberto has so much admiration and gratitude for corpsmen after experiencing them firsthand in the field.

  6. Interesting and helpful to know about the VA in Albuquerque as I’ve never gone down there and have paid a lot for dental treatment, including several extractions.

    1. There’s a great clinic here in Santa Fe…and the ABQ VA for the bigger stuff – like extractions. Hope you keep all you’ve got!

  7. Hi Lucy,

    No experience with the VA because I failed the service physical due to a football injury. But, I love the story about all the connections you made in the waiting room, Some of the best conversations I have ever had were in places where you happen to sit next to some one, and a conversation occurs. You just have to willing to listen to other people’s stories. Sometimes they will surprise you.


    1. Not surprised, Jeff, that you have good conversations with strangers. You are a very gregarious and friendly guy! good traits.

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