Health

VA working to make female veterans more welcome, visible

Dr. Fatma Batuman is the medical director of the women's health program at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. Batuman holds a veteran patient's newborn baby, 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh, on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016.
Dr. Fatma Batuman is the medical director of the women's health program at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. Batuman holds a veteran patient's newborn baby, 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh, on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dr. Fatma Batuman is the medical director of the women's health program at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. Batuman holds a veteran patient's newborn baby, 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh, on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016.
Dr. Fatma Batuman, medical director of the women's health program, holds 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016. Cavanaugh's mother, a former Marine, gave birth to her daughter at the UCLA medical center in partnership with the VA hospital.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Dr. Fatma Batuman is the medical director of the women's health program at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. Batuman holds a veteran patient's newborn baby, 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh, on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016.
Donated art features only female figures inside the Women's Clinic at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. The staff at the clinic are all women, with hopes of making the space more welcoming for female patients.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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Maggie Castillotorres says it's easy to feel invisible in society as a woman veteran, but she wasn't expecting to have that experience when she walked into a Veterans Affairs hospital in San Diego.

"They said, 'Are you here with your spouse? Are you the spouse of a veteran?'" she says. "It happened several times."

Castillotorres, who served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, is one of the growing population of women service members leaving the military and finding themselves in a veterans system that's not quite ready for them.

"The VA was built for men," says Dr. Patty Hayes, the chief consultant for women veterans’ health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "And we’ve been working hard to build in all the things women need."

Hayes' job is to help the VA accommodate the influx of women leaving the services. VA officials say while women made up about 2 percent of the active duty military during World War 2, that's risen to about 15 percent today. And the number of women getting their health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs has nearly tripled since September 11, 2001 to 675,000.

Hayes says the VA has moved steadily, if slowly, towards providing the gender-specific services health care providers should have.

When Dr. Hayes started working for the VA in the mid-1980s, she says many VA facilities didn't even have restrooms for women.

"There were very small numbers of women that were being seen at the VA medical centers," Hayes says. "The care wasn’t really very good."

But now about 90 percent of the 800 VA-run health care facilities nationwide have at least one specially trained "primary care women's provider" on staff. That can be a doctor, a nurse practitioner, or a physician's assistant.

And some facilities across the country, like the VA's largest hospital in Westwood, have women-only clinics. 

The Westwood women's clinic has gone from operating half a day, twice a week a decade ago to a full-time enterprise with a staff of 30 and about 10,000 patients.

Dr. Fatma Batuman, medical director of the women's health program, holds 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016. Both Cavanagh's parents are former Marines.
Dr. Fatma Batuman, medical director of the women's health program, holds 1-month-old Nyia Yvette Cavanagh at the at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2016. Both Cavanagh's parents are former Marines.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Dr. Fatma Batuman runs the clinic, which she calls a "one stop shop."

Female vets can come in to Batuman's clinic and be seen for mental health care, primary care, and gender-specific care all in one place. They recently added a staff pharmacist as well.

Dr. Batuman says all of her providers are women as well. 

The clinic is so popular, Batuman says they're hoping to double their space in the coming years. 

The women-only space is what attracted Castillotorres back to the VA, after going elsewhere for care for years.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the space filled with veterans waiting to see their doctors. 

Among them, Ramona Yates, and her one-month-old daughter.  

Yates says people are often shocked when she tells them she served in the Marine Corps.

"It's weird to me that people don't think, or even let it into their head, that females go into the military and serve their country as well as men do," Yates said. "It's interesting and bothersome at the same time."

The VA hospital doesn't have a maternity ward, so she delivered nearby at UCLA's hospital. 

Yates says if the women's clinic didn't exist, she probably wouldn't even use VA health care at all.

"I don't like going over to the other side [of the hospital]," Yates says. 

The problem?

"We feel invisible." 

When asked what can be done about that, Yates shakes her head.

"I'm still trying to work that out."

This story is part of the American Homefront Project - a KPCC, KUOW and WUNC collaboration. The project reports on military life and veterans issues.

Maggie Castillotorres served as a Boatswain's Mate in the U.S. Navy for eight years, and felt insulted and disrespected in her first visits to a V.A. hospital in San Diego after leaving the service. She's now a student at Pasadena City College and says she gets great care at the women's health clinic at the V.A. hospital in Westwood.
Maggie Castillotorres served as a Boatswain's Mate in the U.S. Navy for eight years, and felt insulted and disrespected in her first visits to a V.A. hospital in San Diego after leaving the service. She's now a student at Pasadena City College and says she gets great care at the women's health clinic at the V.A. hospital in Westwood.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC