Retired general’s vision includes help for the blind
Posted: Monday, March 15, 2010 11:22 pm
By: Chris Menees, Staff Reporter
By CHRIS MENEES
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock has a vision.
It’s one that will help those without vision.
Ms. Pollock — a champion for patient advocacy — was a special guest Friday at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union City, where she offered an inspiring and challenging patient safety presentation to staff as part of National Patient Safety Awareness Week.
Later, she spoke to the Union City Rotary Club about her role in a research and clinical program ded-icated to discovering and delivering new cures for blindness and vision im-pairment.
Ms. Pollock retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of major general after 36 years of service in the Army Nurse Corps, during which time she earned numerous awards and decorations. A “nurse anesthetist become executive,” her military assignments included ser-ving as commander of U.S. Army Medical Command and as acting surgeon general for a period in 2007 — making her the first woman, non-physician to serve in that capacity in any of the military services.
She has a special con-nection to Union City in her acquaintance with BMH-Union City administrator and CEO Derick Ziegler, who became administrator of the local hospital in August 2008 after having spent 23 years in health care administration for the U.S. Army. When Ms. Pollock was hospital CEO at Fort Benning, Ga., Ziegler was her chief of staff; later, when she was promoted to general officer and transferred to Hawaii, she requested Ziegler be transferred there as deputy commander for administration of Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
Ziegler said Ms. Pollock has been “a maverick” her entire career and “a cham-pion for patient safety,” a cause for which she has become more passionate over the years.
Her Friday presentation, “Why Florence Nightingale Is Shaking Her Head,” which was Web cast from he Union City hospital to other hospitals in the BMH system, focused on patient safety and ways staff members could bolster their own contributions.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was an English nurse known for her pioneering work in nursing and was known for addressing the lack of hygiene and lack of sanitation, causes of patient deaths.
Although Ms. Pollock is drawn to the issue of patient safety from a professional level, it’s also very personal for her — in large part due to her own battle with post-operative infection from surgery for a brain aneurysm several years ago.
Ms. Pollock said the initial diagnosis and surgery for a brain aneurysm was difficult and stressful in itself, but it became even more so about eight months later when the whole side of her face swelled. Initially told it was probably a food allergy, she was skeptical since it was on the same side where she had undergone surgery.
“It turns out it was a really bad infection. All of the bone they had cut through was totally rotted out,” she said. “The doctor didn’t know how I was still functioning.”
As a result, the then-colonel ended up on six months of oral antibiotics and a 24-hour infusion for eight weeks, as well as two additional surgeries to reconstruct the side of her head. She said the repercussions included weeks off from work, the cost of antibiotics, stress and a total of four operations instead of just one.
“Now I really understand personally the trauma you can go through,” she said. “Fortunately, I figured it out early and I didn’t die from infection, but not everyone is that lucky.”
Ms. Pollock had joined the Army at the age of 17 after she received a scholarship to college for her bachelor’s degree in nursing. The reason she joined the military was also very personal.
“I chose the Army because my big brother had lost a leg in Vietnam and the Army medical department brought him home alive — so I decided I was going to do that for somebody else’s big brother,” she told The Messenger.
“And then I realized that it’s big brother, sister-in-law, dad, brother, sister ... We have a myriad of all relationships and, so, every day, why am I fighting the bureaucracy, why do I want the organization to be better? Because I want these men and women to go home in the highest level of health that they can to their families.
“The people that are here, who are doing patient care, doing it well and returning patients to health is why they got into it. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that that’s where our energy comes from — staying connected to why we decided to do what we’re doing. If it’s just a job, it’s really hard to be excited about what you do. But if you can make an emotional connection to how you can contribute, how you can make a difference in the world, it’s a whole lot easier to cope with the normal ups and downs that all of us encounter, no matter what our professions,” she said.
The next step
After a distinguished and impressive military career, Ms. Pollock now works in the private sector as executive director of the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I ended up there because of my soldiers, because of the explosions, the IEDs,” she said. “I realized that if they were powerful enough to rip off an arm or leg, certainly they had to be hurting the eyes.
“And then as I did research in that, when I was on active duty, I learned that 10 to 13 percent of all combat injuries include the eye, and so I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Well, the worst that can happen would be that you’d be blinded. So then I start thinking, ‘OK, well what do we do for someone, if that’s the worst that can happen?’ Let’s make sure that we’re taking care of the people that are the worst affected, well.”
Ms. Pollock said it’s suggested that those who are blind learn Braille, but she said only 10 percent of the blind actually know Braille since it’s a difficult “language” to learn.
“After World War II, we would find a neighbor to read to them. Now, we have computers, so that’s an improvement. So, you can still listen and learn, find out what’s going on in the world,” she said. “You get a white cane ... hmmm, that doesn’t feel very reassuring to me and, when you look at it, how many times do you see someone with a white cane out? Not very often. We say, ‘You can have a guide dog.’ But if you’re wondering how you’re going to cope with your own life, what’s the probability you’re going to accept the responsibility for a dog and make your life harder?”
It’s just not acceptable, she said.
“When you look at the vision-impaired community, whether from disease or trauma, seven out of 10 of them stop leaving their homes. They don’t participate in the workplace, they’re not in community, they don’t go to a religious event, they don’t participate in recreation,” she said. “So, should we be surprised that 80 percent of them are chronically depressed? No. But I was just stunned that there were not more aggressive programs out there to keep these men and women engaged in community — so I decided that was what I was going to do next.”
In Pittsburgh, Ms. Pollock met researchers who are the nation’s leaders in tissue regeneration and clinicians who are very interested in being able to offer alternatives to their patients.
“I thought (I could) bring in my skill, my passion, that patient advocacy piece, with premier researchers and clinicians and we could offer something to the vision-impaired community that isn’t being offered anywhere else,” she said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s why I’m in Pittsburgh.”
Given her experience as acting surgeon general — which Ms. Pollock said was equivalent to being CEO of a Fortune 50 company, since it was a $9.7 billion organization — people sometimes ask why she didn’t go into a large business in the private sector after retiring from the military.
“Because my passion has always been for making people healthier, coping with their disease or impairment, so it makes sense to me that I have found a group of people that hasn’t had a champion,” she said. “And they didn’t invite me to be their champion, but they’re stuck with me now and I want to make their lives better. I want it to be common for us to see someone who’s vision-impaired out of their home.”
Published in The Messenger 3.15.10
Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union City, Retired general’s vision includes help for the blind, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock