Friday, May 1, 2009

At a time when many hospitals operated with few resources and in unsanitary conditions, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was a state-of the-art facility boasting electricity, indoor plumbing and an elevator.

Since it opened its doors in 1909, the hospital has treated six U.S. presidents and thousands of injured people from conflicts dating back to World War I. But the hospital also has come under criticism recently for its deteriorating service and facilities.

On Friday, Walter Reed will reflect on the legacy of its namesake and its history as it marks its centennial anniversary.

The institution’s involvement in medical development is “profoundly important,” said Dale C. Smith, a medical historian and professor at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.

“Throughout 100 years when American medicine and military medicine are making important changes, the name of Walter Reed is in the story,” Mr. Smith said.

The Northwest D.C. facility was named for Maj. Walter Reed, a Virginia native who had earned two medical degrees by age 21, and served for 27 years in the Army. He is best known for leading a research team that uncovered new breakthroughs that led to the treatment of yellow fever in the early 1900s.

The first patients were transferred from the Washington Barracks Hospital, which is now Fort McNair. Within the first year, a few living quarters were added. But the greatest expansion began in 1917 to accommodate injured soldiers from World War I. Two years later, the hospital’s bed capacity had expanded from 80 to 2,500. It also increased its campus size from 43 acres to its current 113 acres - the size of Vatican City.

World War II inspired more sophisticated training with physician residency programs. By the late 1950s, Walter Reed established residencies in specialties such as internal medicine, orthopedics and gynecology, and sponsored more than 50 accredited physician training programs that rivaled many of its prestigious civilian counterparts.

Since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Walter Reed has been a home away from home for more than 10,000 wounded service members. Col. Norvell Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, says the needs of that population have influenced the latest advancements.

“Walter Reed has always been on the cutting edge of military medicine,” Col. Coots said. “Now you see soldiers walking on robotic legs and walking on prosthetics within a day of getting them. We have 656 research protocols that are directly related to casualties coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In 2007, the Military Advanced Training Center opened as a research and recovery unit for amputees. The next year, the Warrior Care Clinic was established to provide in-depth primary care services. And this year, Walter Reed became the first military hospital to implement transcranial magnetic stimulation, a therapy used to treat depression.

But many of these new features were made after published reports revealed in 2007 that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at the site were receiving substandard treatment. Many soldiers and some Marines were discharged without receiving proper treatment. Some patients were tasked with filling out extensive paperwork and other duties, despite suffering from psychological disorders.

Col. Coots said the reports were a “dark cloud.”

“We’ve gone on to establish the Warrior Care Clinic that gives them not only better primary care, but everything that helps them transition back into full recovery,” he said. “The improvements that were made to give them the best care is the silver lining.”

Today the hospital treats more than 4,000 service members, retirees and their dependents. It’s scheduled to relocate to Bethesda in 2011, under base realignment legislation, and will operate as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

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