AUGUSTA — “There’s nothing wrong with the new dialysis center,” Vietnam veteran Ron Wills said, “but it’s just not Togus.”

The North Anson resident feels displaced, having received a letter during his dialysis treatment at the Togus VA Medical Center last week stating the outpatient dialysis center was closing.

Christine Wills, Ron Wills’ daughter, said her father has been stressed by the transition.

“He went through hell once,” she said. “(He doesn’t) need to go through it again.”

Ron Wills receives dialysis treatment three times a week, each one lasting four to four-and-a-half hours. He first started receiving care at Togus in 2006 after the first of two strokes.

“Ron is on borrowed time,” said Barbara Wills, his wife of 47 years. “I don’t want them to shorten it up for me.”

He also has Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, Barbara said, and he takes four medications.

“They know how to handle him at Togus,” she said. “They don’t at other facilities.”

Ron Wills was exposed to the chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, a herbicide and defoliant used by U.S. military to eliminate forest cover, Barbara and Christine said.

“(Enemy forces) used to put venomous snakes in the trees,” said Barbara, adding that the chemical would kill those snakes.

Drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, Ron Wills served from 1968 to 1970 with the 101st Airborne Division, his wife said. She said he worked as a crew chief flight engineer on Chinook helicopters, large Army helicopters that are used to transport troops and equipment. After his active-duty time, Ron served in the Army Reserve for several years.

According to an official statement from the VA Maine Healthcare System, the shutdown of the outpatient dialysis center is temporary and caused by the unexpected departure of three dialysis nurses. Keeping patient safety in mind, the system did not think treatments should continue at Togus until the center was restaffed with dialysis nurses.

“This pains me,” Dr. Ronnie C. Marrache said. “I didn’t expect this to happen.”

He did not comment on the nature of the nurses’ departure.

Marrache is the chief of medical services at VA Maine Healthcare System and Veterans Integrated Services Network 1 assistant chief of medicine. He said his family has many veterans, including his father, who also served in the Vietnam War.

“I’ve dedicated my life to taking care of veterans,” Marrache said.

The shutdown is only for outpatient treatment, not inpatient dialysis.

“We have the staffing (to continue inpatient dialysis),” Marrache said. “There is no indication they are looking for work elsewhere.”

Treatment at sites outside the medical center will be temporary.

“We fully intend to bring the operation back online,” Marrache said. “We want the impact as small as possible so the veterans don’t have to do anything.”

Nationally, Marrache explained, there is a nursing shortage. Dialysis requires extra, specialized training, and nurses with that training are in an even smaller pool. Togus does not have a dialysis training program.

He is confident Togus will refill the positions with well-trained nurses. Highly qualified people left, Marrache said, and they want to replace that high quality.

“We will reopen. We will be stronger,” he said, adding he sees the change not as a catastrophe, but as an opportunity.

While he said Togus officials “want to resolve this as quickly as possible,” Marrache hesitated to give a timetable for the dialysis outpatient center reopening. He expects it will take at least a few months.

“Everyone is focused on this,” Marrache said. “Even the national director is aware of it and responded quickly.”

Within a week, he said, postings for the positions were live.

“I’ve never seen it process that fast,” Marrache. “It’s the No. 1 thing on leadership’s mind.”

To address the safety concern, 25 patients who undergo outpatient dialysis treatment received a letter informing them of the shutdown. The letter also noted the system is working with community providers for the patients to continue treatment.

“Due to unforeseen staffing shortages,” the letter said, “we are unable to continue to provide chronic outpatient dialysis services at VA Maine for the foreseeable future.”

The letter is signed by both Marrache and Dr. Brad Schimelman, assistant chief of medicine and director of nephrology services.

“The letter was the fastest way to get the information to the veterans,” said Maureen Heard, the VSN 1 public affairs officer, which oversees the New England region.

Dialysis Clinic Inc., is accommodating many of the veterans — including Wills — at its Waterville center. Jessica Emler, public information manager for DCI, said continuity of care is the goal.

“We want to make sure these veterans get to the care they need,” she said.

Emler said B.J. Goodwin, area operations director, is doing everything she can to accommodate the displaced veterans.

“I think they’ll be in excellent care, just outside of our system,” Marrache said.

He prefers keeping services within the VA because having tests and doctors outside the system can be complicated.

Heard explained that the financial effect for veterans should not change; patients who ordinarily don’t pay for treatment shouldn’t pay for treatment at the outside dialysis centers. Patients who have a co-pay will pay the same co-pay. Patients shouldn’t expect to pay out of pocket and have reimbursement from the VA.

“Every now and then, someone will get a bill (when seen outside the system),” Marrache said. “Don’t get mad; call me. We’ll get them to the right channels.”

VA Maine Healthcare System is recruiting dialysis unit staff members actively, the official statement read, and candidates can apply at www.usajobs.gov or contact Janice Lord at 623-8411, ext. 5586, or [email protected].

Abigail Austin — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @AbigailAustinKJ

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