A common bond
By Eileen Persike
The V.A. medical clinic on Kemp Street in Rhinelander is one busy place, and has been getting busier over the past year or so. That’s when Rhinelander became the first community based VA clinic to offer physical therapy.
“It all started when we were faced with a lot of expenses for non-VA care and it was centered in Northern Wisconsin,” said Jim Zeigler, Chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services at the Oscar G. Johnson VAMC in Iron Mountain. “We found the greatest need in Rhinelander, so we applied for and received a rural health grant to hire a Physical Therapist and a PT assistant.”
The doors to a room repurposed as a therapy center opened in May, 2015, staffed by visiting therapists and PT-A Shawn Zimmerlee, an army veteran.
“I got injured overseas in 2006 and ended up going through physical therapy,” Zimmerlee said. “I found this was something I was interested in, so I went back to school, and here I am.”
He was eventually joined at the clinic by Dr. Wes Spurgeon, a Northwoods native and former Blackhawk helicopter pilot who was grounded after developing type one diabetes. Spurgeon left the military in 2003, went to UW-LaCrosse and received his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.
Being veterans, both men said, is a bonus to the job.
“The military connection really helps,” Spurgeon said. “We have one patient who tells us every time he comes in that that’s the benefit we offer—that we are veterans.”
“I think it adds a level of comfort for some of the vets, too,” Zimmerlee added. “You have that common bond.”
Prior to the satellite PT clinic opening, vets would have the option of applying for aid to see a local PT or driving the hour and a half, or finding a ride, to Iron Mountain for treatment. Often by the time the patient returned home, any improvement that was made had been undone.
Following his knee replacement, James Miller of Rhinelander, rehabilitation at the VA was an easy choice.
“Well, it’s handy because I live close,” he said. “The guys are friendly and we can joke about anything. It’s relaxing and when I leave here I feel good. It’s fun to be here.”
According to Ziegler, the Rhinelander clinic as a whole has the largest patient load of any of the seven satellite clinics. In the eleven months since physical therapy has been available, the clinic has booked 1,800 PT patient appointments.
Marine veteran John Houghton is undergoing therapy for a hip replacement. He perhaps summed up the clinic’s popularity with just a handful of words.
“It’s convenient, it’s the V.A., it’s cool.”
For more information on the Rhinelander V.A. clinic’s physical therapy or other services, visit ironmountain.va.gov or call 715-362-4080.