Cable picture unclear at VA

Outdated system spoils plan to televise chapel services across campus

October 26, 2003|By Luciana Lopez | Luciana Lopez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Perry Point flipped the switch on the new closed-circuit cameras in the multidenominational chapel, many of the volunteers who helped raise the $9,317 for the system thought the center's bedridden patients would be able to watch religious services in their rooms.

That was in November 2000. But most of the patients on the campus still can't see what's going on in the chapel without walking down there on their own. The cable system at the 364-acre center is too old to carry the signal from the chapel to Perry Point's origination station.

So only the nursing home, which is connected to the chapel and which recently had new cable wiring installed, can receive a clear picture of the chapel on Channel 6.

Instead of soothing religious broadcasts, the chapel venture has produced something less tranquil.

Volunteers say upgrading the campus' cable system should be a top priority, and they are arguing with VA officials who say that the almost $700,000 it would cost to upgrade Perry Point's cable system is out of reach for the financially strapped agency.

"I think there should be a priority on that one," said William Fortuna, a 23-year Army veteran who volunteers at Perry Point through the Catholic War Veterans.

"It's very important with these patients there, like World War II veterans there. And they're getting old, they're dying, too, and not getting that religion there [at Perry Point] that they grew up with."

Fortuna said he has been hospitalized at Perry Point and missed seeing Mass. In contrast, the VA's Loch Raven facility in Baltimore broadcasts chapel services, which Fortuna said was a comfort to him during a recent stay there.

"When I was in there, helpless in bed there ... it really perked me up. I was getting better," Fortuna said.

But the Maryland VA has so many budget demands that finding the money to upgrade the existing copper cables to higher-capacity fiber optics is a struggle, said Guy B. Richardson, the associate director for finance of the VA Maryland Health Care System.

"It's pretty expensive, and it competes with all the other projects, not just on this campus," but in the entire Maryland VA health care system, Richardson said.

The other projects at the VA include scheduled expenses, such as buying new medical equipment, and emergencies, such as fixing leaking roofs on Perry Point buildings, some of which have been in use for 80 years or more.

"We never get as much as we would like," Richardson said. "Each year, we go through `How much funding did we get?'"

Spiritual, physical

Richardson added that although the campus tries to integrate patients' spiritual needs into "total holistic care" - chaplains make bedside visits and volunteers help patients who can move about get to the chapel on Sundays - the first priority at the center is patient care.

And John Richardson, the director of pastor care services for the VA Maryland Health Care System, says there are better ways to address the patients' spiritual needs, such as the visits he encourages the chapel staff to make.

"It's not about evangelizing. Spirituality is very much a part of the treatment program," he said. "We feel we can do it best by communicating directly" through visits to patients.

John Richardson said he also works to get patients into the chapel for a fuller religious experience. "Worship is a fellowship, it's a community. It's the environment that makes the difference, to have the people there, to hear the music, to see the stained-glass windows," he said.

Guy Richardson, the finance officer, also noted that the VA has been taking steps to upgrade the cables, including a $10,000 appropriation in the fiscal year that ended last month, and upgrading the wiring inside several buildings as they are renovated.

Barring complications, the project should be completed in five years, according to a letter sent from Dennis H. Smith, the director of the VA Maryland Health Care System, to a Perry Point volunteer.

"Since this is an extremely large project, it has been broken down into stages," Smith wrote. The nursing home was part of the first stage "because there were numerous requests from patients wanting to view the religious services originating from the chapel."

But Ray Astor, a retired Army colonel who received the letter from Smith, said the five-year timeline might be unrealistic given the current spending pace on the cable upgrade. At a rate of $10,000 a year, he said, the system will need to be upgraded several times over before the project is done.

"They wait till the end of the [fiscal] year, and we get what's left," said Astor, who first proposed the cameras in the chapel and who volunteers in the chapel through the same organization as Fortuna. "Times are tight. We don't get much."

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