SAN ANTONIO (WOAI/KABB) – The Department of Veterans Affairs is embracing a new kind of health care. For some veterans, acupuncture and tai chi are even replacing painkillers.
Fox San Antonio was granted exclusive access into the new Whole Health program. San Antonio is one of its flagship sites, and it could revolutionize how the VA approaches chronic conditions like pain and PTSD.
Take one look at Alan Van Valkenburg’s t-shirt and you know exactly what makes the longtime Army combat medic tick.
"Dad, grandpa, veteran,” he reads from the shirt. “Those are my priorities.
Outside the VA Medical Center, he told us about his journey.
“You're trained from day one to go, go, go. Mission first. And you don't take care of yourself,” Van Valkenburg says.
He has PTSD from what he saw in war. Two years ago, a major stroke forced him to relearn how to walk and how to see.
"After the stroke, simple things can be frustrating,” Van Valkenburg says.
He’s now in the Whole Health Program, working with a health coach and setting goals to improve his mind and body.
"Were there any areas that stood out to you?" the health coach asks.
“Physical well-being,” Van Valkenburg answers.
“So working the body?” the health coach asks.
“Yes,” Van Valkenburg says. "It comes back to having the PTSD and the depression. And not wanting to do things."
Dr. Elizabeth Halmai, the clinical director for Whole Health at the VA Medical Center, says the program is a new way for veterans to look at health care.
"It's to help people re-engage with that purpose or meaning that maybe they lost,” Dr. Halmai explains. "Very different from traditional medicine. We oftentimes refer to traditional medicine as being a 'find it, fix it' model. We're really geared toward the symptoms the veteran is having, and how do we help them address those symptoms."
Van Valkenburg’s gotten relaxation coaching to rest his mind and even sleep better. There’s acupuncture to help with pain, and tai chi for strength and balance.
Any veteran can sign up for Whole Health, with any diagnosis. We watched the tai chi instructor modify movements for a veteran with a prosthetic leg.
"This isn't your grandfather's VA,” reporter Emily Baucum says.
"Not at all. Not at all,” Dr. Halmai says with a laugh.
She calls Whole Health a preventive approach that can keep a veteran healthier, longer.
"We start seeing a reduction in both pharmacy costs and outpatient costs,” Dr. Halmai says. "One of the reasons that Whole Health is actually here is to really tackle that opioid epidemic. We actually have seen a reduction in opioid use and opioid costs for those individuals that actually do engage in Whole Health."
The VA believes Whole Health could also help prevent suicides. Doctors are working to target people transitioning from active duty to veteran status, a group that’s most at-risk of mental health issues.
"I'm 56, so I'm not young either,” Van Valkenburg says. “But I've got a couple of friends that are Vietnam veterans and they are embracing this program. Because it's never been here for us before."
He’s learned to connect his health into the priorities he wears over his heart.
"It's made me take a harder look at myself and where I want to be from now, to the future,” Van Valkenburg says. So I can see my grandson at 18 and watch him graduate. I want to see him graduate."
By EMILY BAUCUM