VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
Life Saving Partnership
“First and foremost, these are the two-best hospitals in the world,” Navy Veteran, Vernique Lynn said of the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center and University of Utah Hospital.
VA Salt Lake City Health Care System partners with many organizations throughout the Intermountain West, but one of the strongest and most enduring partnerships has been with University of Utah Health. And arguably, no Veteran knows the benefits of that partnership which began nearly 75 years ago after WWII, better than Vernique.
Since getting out of the Navy she has faced three major health “walls” and VA Salt Lake City and University Health collaborated to help her survive two.
After spending eight years in the Navy, Vernique got out and, eager and anxious to progress in civilian life, didn’t feel the need to look into VA benefits or health care. She became a surgical tech and started raising her two kids in Georgia.
In 2006, at the age of 33, Vernique was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was very aggressive,” she said. Vernique battled the breast cancer like a true warrior, going through numerous chemotherapy treatments. She eventually broke free of cancer’s grip and was declared a breast cancer survivor, but the toll was high-- especially on her heart.
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Congestive Heart Failure and Transplant
“Five years later, I went into full congestive heart failure,” said Vernique. “The chemotherapy killed my heart.”
As she was visiting her doctor, he mentioned VA health care. “At that point, I had gone through the first cancer episode, I didn't know I could have VA benefits, which is one thing that we need to really truly advocate for I believe.”
She enrolled and in 2011 received word that VA Salt Lake City and the University of Utah would perform a heart transplant.
“These hospitals were the only ones that said ‘okay’ because of the cancer episode,” said Vernique.
VA moved Vernique out to Salt Lake City in 2014 to wait for her new heart to become available. After nine restless months, Vernique finally decided she was not going to worry about when she would receive her new heart and she just would “chill,” the next day she got the call that allowed her to scale her second wall.
Vernique still recalls the entire day. She and a friend went to a movie, out to lunch, a visit to Red Butte Garden, and tour of downtown Salt Lake City. They were trying to find their way back to her hotel using her car’s GPS, when her phone kept ringing interrupting the directions. She finally decided to answer the call.
“I said ‘I'm sorry I cannot talk to you right now. Can I call you back?’” Vernique recalled. “And the woman on the other end said, ‘Oh no, I don't think you want to call me back on this. This is University of Utah and we have a heart for you.’”
She and her friend immediately broke into tears. “We were just amazed, frantic, happy and tears streaming from both of us.”
Vernique received her new heart March 29, 2015 at the University of Utah. She was transferred to the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center a few days later, where she continued to recover.
“It wasn't a long recovery for me,” Vernique said. “I actually got up walking as soon as possible. I left the hospital early because I was just so ready to go.”
Ready to go back to her daughter and son in Georgia. For two years, she raised her kids and lived life to the fullest with her new heart. That’s when she faced her third wall. Unfortunately, her health suffered yet another blow.
In 2017, Vernique got word that her breast cancer had returned. Her VA health care teams in Georgia and Salt Lake collaborated with her doctors at the U and they determined it was best for her to come back to Salt Lake City for treatment through Huntsman Cancer Center. The treatment was successful and, on May 21, 2017, Vernique was declared cancer free for a second time.
Just like the day she got the call telling her she had a new heart, Vernique clearly remembers her cancer-free day. “Oh my gosh, I was so ecstatic. I was skipping leaving the Huntsman Cancer Center hugging everybody.”
Now, nearly two years later, she is living in Utah, back to work, and looking forward to seeing her daughter graduate from high school. Vernique also is a proponent of the VA’s Whole Health program. VA Salt Lake City was tapped to become a flag ship facility to implement the VA’s radical new redesign of health care where doctors and staff form a partnership with Veterans and their families to look at all aspects of the Veterans life – not just their symptoms or illness.
“I'm always looking to feed my body, mind, and soul and that's what the whole health system here does,” Vernique said.
The Navy Veteran, heart-transplant recipient, and two-time cancer survivor, who says she didn’t defeat cancer but loved it away, is grateful for a lot of things. On that list is the VA and University of Utah Health partnership that saved her life not once but twice.
“It's a beautiful thing that they were able to bring me down here so that I could have this excellent care,” said Vernique. “I'm grateful, to say the least.”