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A New Kind of Basic Training

Rush offer training in transgender patient care

By Ben Feldheim

Sgt. Shane Ortega embraces challenges. The 28-year-old U.S. Army helicopter crew chief completed two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, broke both of his feet during rigorous Special Forces exercises and is living openly as a transgender man — the first active-duty soldier to do so.

Ortega is among an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S., 15,500 of whom currently serve in the military, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The population faces an array of difficulties, from outright abuse and discrimination to challenges just obtaining basic medical care. Some health care professionals feel ill-equipped to handle transgender patients and as a result may turn them away.

“If you know the basics of human anatomy, then you’re equipped to treat transgender people,” Ortega says. “All it takes is asking basic questions about how that person wants to be identified, and simply treating us like any other patients.”

Increasing understanding to offer better care

Rush University Medical Center staff also saw this need, and designed a day of training to better prepare caregivers to treat transgender patients. One of the first programs of its kind, the Transgender Health Training Institute took place at Rush on Oct. 8 and was sponsored by the Tawani Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds a variety of projects to raise awareness of and support the “citizen soldier.”

To help caregivers become more familiar with specific needs of transgender people, workshops were offered led by staff from Rush, including the Center for Veterans and Their Families at Rush,  as well as practitioners from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital and University Plastic Surgery, a private physician practice group. About 60 Rush health care professionals attended the training.

The topics covered included surgical procedures, hormone treatments and the challenges to find acceptance in society, especially those specific to military personnel. Ortega spoke on a panel about patient experiences along with a male transgender teen and Col. (IL) Jennifer N. Pritzker, ARNG (Retired), president and founder of the Tawani Foundation.

“We’re aware of the intensive efforts at Rush to assist veterans, and the institute day was one more unique and special way that Rush has chosen to do it,” says Brad Ballast, executive director of the Tawani Foundation. “The confluence of support both for military and transgender people is in line with our goals, and it’s inspiring to see in action.”

Opening doors to help

Improving health care providers’ understanding of the needs of transgender patients is an important part of reducing their risk of harm. “I am constantly learning about transgender people being mistreated, attacked or outright killed because of who they are,” says Niranjan S. Karnik, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Rush and medical director of the Road Home Program.

“Health care must be a safe place,” he continues. “Through our institute training, we can provide an overview of best practices, help caregivers simply be more welcoming and open more doors to help more people.”

Materials assembled for future trainings will be archived online with the goal of making them available for other health care institutions interested in providing similar enrichment programs.

“Rush has a long history of embracing and supporting the LGBTQ population,” Karnik adds. “This is another offering that distinguishes Rush among peer institutions.”

Allying with Wounded Warrior

Funding from the Tawani Foundation also goes toward efforts to match a $15-million challenge grant to the Road Home Program from the Wounded Warrior Project. For every dollar Rush secures for the Road Home Program, up to $7.5 million over three years, the Wounded Warrior Project will make matching contributions of $2.

Road Home will use these grant funds and the philanthropic gifts and in-kind resources they match to expand the program’s existing care and counseling services and to develop an intensive outpatient evaluation and treatment program for veterans and their families.

The grant funding is part of a broader effort by the Wounded Warrior Project to support a nationwide, comprehensive care network that will enhance access and provide clinical and family-centered treatment to veterans and military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other conditions.

Other WWP grant recipients in the network include Emory’s Veterans Program at Emory University in Atlanta; the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program in Boston; and Operation Mend Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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