Dr. Greg Jolissaint (at left), vice president of Trinity Health's Military and Veterans Health Program, speaks with a colleague at Holy Cross Health’s annual Veterans Day celebration on Monday, Nov. 12. (Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Health)
Dr. Greg Jolissaint (at left), vice president of Trinity Health's Military and Veterans Health Program, speaks with a colleague at Holy Cross Health’s annual Veterans Day celebration on Monday, Nov. 12. (Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Health)
In June, Trinity Health officially launched a new Military and Veterans Health Program, with the motto “serving you as you served us,” to provide high-quality, culturally sensitive health care to military service members, veterans and their families. They are currently piloting the program at Holy Cross Hospitals in Germantown and Silver Spring.

The initiative originated when a Holy Cross staff member called the president and CEO of Holy Cross Health, Dr. Norvell “Van” Coots, to say that they did not know how to help the veterans whom they were seeing in the hospital. Dr. Coots, who is a retired Army brigadier general, became a big part of convincing Trinity Health, the national Catholic health system that operates Holy Cross hospitals, to solve that problem.

For him, that problem is personal. In a video that is now a part of the training for the program, Coots explains that according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he is an 80 percent disabled combat veteran, with a bad right knee and left shoulder. As a result of his experiences, he still jumps at high pitched sounds, has a hard time with fireworks, and does not like traffic, crowds or flying. He noted that his family also bore the effects of his service, because while he was overseas in Afghanistan, they lived in constant fear that he would not come back.  

“But if you saw me in the ED (Emergency Department), and you only looked at my bum right knee and you never asked if I had ever served, you wouldn’t know any of what I just told you,” he said.

Through the program, the hospital will ask about a patient’s military involvement during the intake process, in order to make it easier to identify whether their illness or injury could trace back to their time of service. Trinity Health is also going to be training their employees how to identify common medical issues facing veterans, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), brain injuries, and respiratory damage resulting from burn pits. That way, when the doctors learn that the patient is a veteran, they have the knowledge they need to make the connection between an illness and its cause. 

For example, there are many diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide the United States military sprayed on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. If the doctor sees a patient who has one of those diseases and knows that he is a Vietnam War veteran, the hospital can refer them to the VA to receive disability checks and can also be more understanding toward their circumstance. 

The training will include information about military culture, such as the difference between the branches and what it means to serve in each one. In the lobbies of the hospitals, they will display the flags of all of the military branches.

“We want people to understand they are welcome and we appreciate their service,” said Dr. Greg Jolissaint, the vice president of the Military and Veterans Health Program.

This not only affects the patients, Dr. Jolissaint said, as he has noticed that since they began displaying the flags, the employees of the hospital have started to be more proud and open about their own military service. Dr. Blair Eig, Holy Cross Health Chief Medical Officer, said they have also seen how learning about their patients’ history can change the attitudes of the staff members who may have been less familiar with the effects of military service.

“They treat everyone the same until they learn that everyone is different,” he said. 

The initiative follows in the footsteps of the founding religious orders of Trinity Health, who all helped staff military hospitals and ships during the Civil War. When the president and military generals asked the Holy Cross Sisters to help provide care to wounded military members, they told them they would only do so if they were allowed to help both Union and Confederate soldiers, because it is their belief that they need to serve everyone.  They boarded the Red Rover, which became the Navy’s first hospital ship, and traveled down to serve the wounded in the war.

In addition to carrying on the military legacy, Dr. Eig said they are living out the sisters’ dedication to serving those in need. 

“One of the core values of Trinity and Holy Cross is serving the underserved,” he said, noting that many studies have shown that the needs of veterans are not being met “because people don’t understand them.”

Just as they make an effort to serve the diverse population of patients at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring in their native language, “we have to speak military,” Dr. Eig explained. There are more than 400,000 veterans residing in Maryland and Washington, with more than 154,000 of them concentrated in the Silver Spring area.

The new program aims to fill in the gaps of veteran health care, since both the VA and the Department of Defense cannot provide help to everyone, especially when it comes to specialty care. If the VA sees a patient and cannot provide care for them, they will be able to call Holy Cross and find the particular type of doctor they need, knowing that they will understand the patient.

Trinity Health is not restricted to only caring for military members or veterans, and is able to care for their family members as well.

“If the service member is affected, whatever is wrong with them affects the family as well,” said Dr. Jolissaint, who grew up as the son of an Air Force officer, whose picture hangs in the lobby of the program’s offices. He recalls going to his family doctor growing up, and having them ask questions about military involvement. But sometime after the Vietnam War, Dr. Jolissaint said doctors stopped asking those questions, and medical schools stopped training them to do so. 

Dr. Jolissaint became a member of the military himself, and spent 36 years in the Army, first as an airborne ranger infantryman, and then after attending medical school, as a military doctor. He served both in military hospitals and as a part of military operations. He retired in 2010, and is now leading this new initiative.

In the future, Dr. Jolissaint hopes to recruit volunteer veterans to visit patients as a companion who understands them. As they talk to the patient about their military service, they could relay anything that they are concerned about to the nurse.

“This is new for us. It is different,” said Dr. Eig. “We have recognized, ‘Boy, this is important.’ That could be us, it could be our family, it could be our neighbor next door.”