NEW HANOVER — A newly retired Air Force sergeant was coping with a weak leg, spinal and pelvic injuries from a motorcycle accident, forcing him to use a cane to walk.
After knee replacement surgery, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Antony Rice underwent rehabilitation at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, but he was not experiencing anywhere near a full recovery.
That’s when he was referred to a special therapy technique offered at a Virtua Health and Wellness Center across from the base in New Hanover.
The referral landed him in a new Virtua program, “Here to Serve,” with a goal to provide better and quicker access and health care to military members, veterans and their immediate families.
“My care definitely has been streamlined and my strength and balance has improved 100 percent,” said the 51-year-old Rice, who still lives in base housing, adding he waited less than 30 days for his first appointment.
Rice enjoyed a 30-year military career that included service in Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and tours of duty in Air Force recruiting and management. He is now in the Wounded Warrior program.
“The Here to Serve program at Virtua is especially important to the military because service members have to be mission-ready,” the veteran explained.
An essential component of that readiness is being medically fit for any mission.
This new initiative by Marlton-based Virtua Health is a multidisciplinary program that includes a dedicated personal health navigator who sets up appointments and coordinates care for veterans and active military members, particularly those stationed at the Joint Base in Burlington County.
Service members and veterans are then given a single phone number to call whenever they need to contact Virtua.
“Our military heroes and their families have always been there to serve our nation. It’s important that we, in turn, serve them by providing personalized, easy-to-access medical care,” said Dr. Reg Blaber, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Virtua Health.
More: How married doctor couple a Virtua keep love alive
The doctor has a a deep connection with military care. He served as an internist in the U.S. Army for six years and achieved the rank of major while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Fort Benning and Fort Meade between 1989 and 1995.
He said the initiative was developed in consultation with the Joint Base, where it’s a priority of Virtua’s program to increase access to health services for active-duty personnel.
“I am very proud of having served in the military, and I think that gives me unique insight among Virtua leadership as to the needs of those who serve in our military and the people who care for them. I truly understand how important it is to be mission-ready, and I have great empathy for the difficulties military personnel can have when trying to navigate a civilian health system,” he added.
At recent therapy sessions, Sgt. Rice huffed, puffed and uttered a “whew!” more than once during a specialized blood flow restriction therapy, which increases muscle strength and size and limb stamina through repetitive exercises with the use of a cuff.
An inflatable band was wrapped around the thigh of Rice’s legs to cut off some of the blood supply from the limb’s muscles. He stood, sat and reclined to perform leg-raising and other leg exercises under therapist Andrea Ream-Costantini’s supervision.
“There’s pain, but you have to push through it,” Rice explained.
Ream-Costantini said her patient’s quality of life has improved because he can now walk and go up and down stairs more easily.
There have been 844 navigation requests to “Here to Serve” since the program started last summer, according to Virtua officials, with an initial focus on serving active duty military. The program opened to veterans in November.
Their care options are wide-ranging from physician appointment to health services like orthopedics, cardiology, obstetrics, gynecology and radiology, according to hospital spokeswoman Julie Walsh.
Air Force Col. Robert “Preach” McAllister, vice commander of the 87th Air Base Wing at the Joint Base, happened to land recently in the same blood flow restriction therapy program at Virtua as Sgt. Rice.
The 45-year-old McAllister said he was injured in a fall on duty seven years ago while carrying a 100-pound load off a KC-10 supertanker, a refueling airplane. He experienced complications from knee surgery and had never been able to walk properly, run or do other normal activities since.
“I was in the doldrums before I was referred to Virtua and my Tricare insurance authorized more therapy visits,” said the colonel, a California native who has flown 200 missions over Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent 12 of his 22 service years at the Joint Base.
“I have received outstanding care from the Virtua team. After I started three sessions of therapy per week I have seen slow but steady progress and I’m walking better.”
Virtua has both hospitals and health and wellness centers in Burlington and Camden counties and also a wellness center in Gloucester County.
Go: To access “Here to Serve” call 833 676-7677, email email@example.com or visit virtua.org/HeretoServe
Comegno loves telling stories about South Jersey life, history and military veterans for the Courier Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. If you have a story to share, call her at 856-486-2473 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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