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Panel OKs spinal injury unit at Zablocki center

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The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved $32.5 million to build a new spinal cord injury unit at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee.

The project, which will include a new building attached to the VA hospital, still faces two hurdles.

The Senate must approve the bill that approves funding for military construction projects in the 2007 fiscal year. And the money for the project must remain in the final bill worked out by negotiators from the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Money for the project was included in President Bush’s proposed budget but was eliminated by the House in its version of the bill.

“We’re hoping,” said Larry Berkeley, associate director of the Zablocki Medical Center in Milwaukee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee included the $32.5 million in the Military Construction Appropriation Bill at the request of Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat and a member of the appropriations committee.

The new spinal cord injury unit was the VA’s top construction priority this year, Berkeley said.

The existing unit at Zablocki Medical Center has 32 staffed in-patient beds and about 440 patients from 20 different states.

The center has treated about four patients wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan since the start of those wars, said Col. Ken Lee, a physician who oversees the unit and a member of the Wisconsin National Guard.

Spinal cord injuries have been less common in the Iraq war than in previous wars because of the greater use of body armor, Lee said.

Wounded military personnel with spinal cord injuries typically are treated first at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. They then are moved to VA hospitals throughout the country for Rehabilitation.

The VA system has 23 spinal cord injury units and is building a new unit in Minneapolis.

At Zablocki Medical Center, the unit originally was designed for general medicine and has limited space, Lee said. Spinal cord patients require more space than other patients.

The unit also is on the 10th floor of the hospital while rehabilitation and therapy services are in the basement.

If funded, the new unit would be less institutional and include the latest technology, such as “environmental care units.” These allow patients to control their Environment, such as making phone calls or moving their beds, by moving their head or using voice commands.

It also would include equipment such as ceiling-mounted patient lifts, making it easier for staff and patients to be moved.

From the July 21, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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