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Lives Made Whole: A Benefactor's Legacy

More than 300 individuals are no longer in the status of "patient" or "sufferer," thanks to the generosity of one woman and the vision and dedication of a medical staff.

Inova Mount Vernon Hospital's Wound Healing Center celebrated its first anniversary last Thursday, and it was overwhelmed with former patients returning to sing its praises and give testimony to the cutting-edge medicine that has given them back their lives.

"I went to the hospital in Charlottesville for five years for a skin ulcer on my leg, and they couldn't heal me. Then my doctor suggested I come here, and in 10 months I was cured. Now I'm feeling great," said Rebecca Riley of Culpeper.

Donald Person of Springfield was one of the first to be treated at the Center, starting the day after Christmas 2001. He came to the Center every day until last month. He also had 40 sessions in the hyperbaric chamber, the only such facility in Northern Virginia.

"I think they dug out every John Wayne movie ever made so I could watch them while I was in the chamber," Person said. "Dr. [Philip] Garrett worked on me every week. I also had three operations on my foot. I got the full tour."

Chesterfield L. Moat of Alexandria also "got the full tour." He suffered from a damaged ankle as a result of an accident. "I had 15 days of treatment in both the chamber and the wound center, plus three skin grafts over five months," he explained.

The Center treats patients who suffer from chronic, non-healing wounds caused by poorly functioning veins, ulcers related to diabetes, radiation therapy, burns and other sources, according to Dr. Eric Desman, medical director of the Center. At any given time, almost five million Americans suffer from chronic, non-healing wounds.

"Our healing rate is 85 percent above the national average. In our first year of service, the Center's average treatment time has been seven weeks. The national average is 16 weeks," Desman pointed out.

"This is the only wound-healing center between Richmond and Baltimore with both hyperbaric chambers and other wound-healing treatments and technologies," Desman said. "This first anniversary marks a time when we've been able to help so many people."

THAT ABILITY GREW out of the generosity of Dorothea R. Fisher, a longtime resident and former patient at the hospital. Before her death, she expressed her desire to make a gift to the hospital in recognition of the care she had received.

Fisher suffered from diabetes, circulatory problems and chronic wounds herself. She was given the option of leg amputation because of gangrene. But at age 82, she decided she wouldn't go that route, knowing that her condition eventually would end in death, according to hospital personnel.

"Living alone, she didn't want to deal with life as an amputee at her age. Instead she decided to live out the remaining six weeks of her life in hospice care," said Kathleen Thomas, manager, media relations, Inova Health Care System.

"But she said, 'I want to know my hard-earned money is going to do some good for others in need.' Once the Center was explained to her, she decided that was what she wanted to support. She reflected that if such a center had been available, she might not be faced with the choice she had to make," Thomas said.

That hard-earned money, over $500,000 according to Robert Kimes, executor of her will, established what will now be known as the Dorothea Fisher Wound Healing Center. "I'm very glad that it worked out the way it did," Kimes said, "She was a very good person that went through hell for years."

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1916, Fisher moved with her family to the New York City area in 1942. Except for a six-year residency in London as a writer, where she had her novel "Born Free to Love" published, Fisher spent the rest of her life in the United States.

She had a career in banking, first as an auditor for the government, then with the bank that became known as Crestar and is today SunTrust. Her husband of 37 years, an advertising executive, predeceased her. They had no children, and she had no living relatives at the time of her death on May 16, 2001.

IN ADDITION TO THE latest technology and equipment, Dr. Desman attributes the success of the Center to "our tremendous team effort, the hospital supporting us 110 percent, and providing state-of-the-art care with compassion and excellence."

It is that team effort, compassion and excellent staff that rank highest on Margaret Braun's list of accolades for the Center. As a spokesperson during the celebration for all the former patients, Braun, who was a six-week Center patient, said, "These are the best people I've been around in a long, long time. One month prior to coming here, I had been with another group of doctors. They told me my condition would take care of itself because they didn't know what to do. When I came here, these people told me what they were going to do and that it would not be an overnight cure."

Braun attributed the success of the Center to three things. "One, they are very positive people. They're not all sad and mopey. Two, they tell you the what and whys for the treatment. And, three, they are very reassuring and listen to you. All that helps the patient and gives them confidence."

Assessing the Center's first year, Ann Vennell, administrative director of the Center, said, "The number of patients who have sought us out and been referred to us validates that the community needed it. There are tenfold number of patients still out there."

As a trained physical therapist, Vennell, verified, "Here, we can bring everything to the patient, and that's very rewarding to us and them. Any physician can refer a patient to us, or a patient can come to us on their own. We can also line up a patient with a particular physician specializing in a given area."

The Center's success has been so phenomenal that it has already outgrown its space on the hospital's first floor. "We're bursting at the seams," Desman noted. "We'll be moving to new space in the next year." Vennell added, "We should double our size in the next year."

AT THE PRESENT TIME the Center consists of three areas: the patient reception area, wound-healing area and hyperbaric chamber area. The latter contains two of the large, glass-topped cylinders that treat wounds by pure oxygen pumped in under pressure.

"It increases the body's oxygen and, therefore, the healing process," according to Joan Wirsing, R.N., who oversees the dual units. Even though the patient is encased within the cylinder, he can see through the glass lid. There is a television set in view of each unit to help the time pass.

"The longest treatment is up to five hours in the unit," Wirsing said. This is usually for patients suffering from decompression. Under normal procedures, a patient takes 20 treatments in the unit of approximately one hour each. The only side effect is some ear-popping on exiting, much like that experienced by some people when flying.

The units are powered by oxygen, not electricity. If there is a power failure while someone is in the unit, he is at no risk, according to hospital personnel.

During a patient's first appointment at the Center, he is given a thorough diagnostic examination to identify the type of wound and the underlying problem causing it not to heal. An individualized program of treatment is then designed. The wound is assessed, measured and digitally photographed.

Once a treatment plan is initiated, a patient visits the Center on a regular basis during the course of treatment. He is also given complete instructions about how to care for the wound at home between visits.

In welcoming the crowd to the ceremony, Susan Herbert — vice president, Inova Health System, and administrator, Inova Mount Vernon Hospital — stated, "It's a real pleasure, just one year later, to see how many people have been helped by the Center. I'm so glad you all found us. It has exceeded all our expectations."

The most succinct testimony to that success was offered by Braun, who emphasized, "As much as I like you all, I'm glad I'm not here anymore. Thank you for all you did."