Veterans offer their thanks

Published: April 29, 2009  |  Source: northeast2.tbo.com
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The message on the marquee at the entrance to the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital goes to the heart of the sacrifice made by the men and women receiving treatment at the facility.

It reads: “The Price Of Freedom Is Visible Here.”

“Yes it is,” said hospital director Stephen Lucas.

Nowhere on the hospital’s campus is that more apparent than inside the spinal cord injury center. The 99,000-square-foot, 100-bed facility annually provides inpatient care for about 1,300 veterans and active-duty military personnel, plus outpatient care for about 4,500 others with various injuries and disorders. Included among them are severely wounded victims of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“Some suffer devastating injuries in their service to America,” Lucas said.

The spinal cord injury center opened in 2002 and expanded six years later to offer long-term care. On April 20 it was renamed the Michael Bilirakis Department of Veteran Affairs Spinal Cord Center in honor of the former U.S. congressman who, while in office from 1983 to 2007, secured funding for the $44 million facility.

“It’s like no other place in the country,” said Kevin White, the center’s newly appointed chief of staff. “It’s been a center of excellence for over a decade.”

Prior to the celebration to honor Bilirakis and unveil a bronze plaque recognizing his contributions to the center, White collected comments from patients treated at the center.

“It’s a phenomenal place,” and “The care around here is great, both mentally and physically,” were typical of the remarks he documented.

Shirley Miaoulis, who spoke on behalf of U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-Seminole, worked for Bilirakis 22 of the 24 years he was a congressman.

“I can attest to how much he worked toward making this happen,” she said.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who occupies the seat his father vacated in 2007, also was on hand for the ceremony, along with several spinal cord injury patients and a contingent of uniformed veterans to honor the elder Bilirakis.

“I’m so proud to be here among these heroes,” Gus Bilirakis said. “I’m also proud to be here to honor another hero, my hero, my dad.”

Michael Bilirakis recalled a time when patients with spinal cord injuries were treated on the fourth floor of the hospital where others with psychological issues also were receiving care.

“Thank God we now have a facility like this to help all the men and women who’ve sacrificed their lives for this country,” he said.

By JOYCE McKENZIE