One sign of the changing demographics of veterans could be seen this past weekend on the second floor of the Baltimore VA Medical Center on Greene Street: a baby shower.
Dozens of new and expectant mothers played games and listened to speakers Saturday afternoon amid pink and blue balloons, gift bags and birthday cake. The gathering celebrated the birth of 56 babies born to local female veterans over the last year, and also served to raise awareness of an emerging field of services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, designed to cater to women who have served in the military.
Dr. Catherine Staropoli, medical director of the Women Veterans Health Program, said the mothers are among a fast-growing population of female veterans.
The VA offers primary care, prenatal and pre-pregnancy care, infertility services, maternity care services and newborn care services. However, officials say many female veterans are unaware of these services.
Jody Durrant was one of the mothers attending shower, bringing her 1-month-old son, Jackson, to the party. Durrant, 33, served four years in the U.S. Air Force beginning in 2006. She now works in the medical field and says her VA women's program contact was helpful in coordinating prenatal and delivery health care.
In the early 1990s, the vast majority of the patients at the VA hospital were men, recalls Zelda McCormick, who was a nurse on the surgical floor at the time.
When staff did see a woman, "we could not believe it," said McCormick, who is now the manager of the women's program. "Everybody wanted to talk to her."
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Times have changed. Now, there are around 5,000 female veteran patients in the region, and officials say they are helping to drive improvements to the hospital such as better privacy in patients' rooms and bathrooms.
On Saturday, Durrant and the others at the baby shower received multiple gift bags with everything from diapers to Burt's Bees shampoo. The gifts came from donations made by volunteer groups, national organizations, individuals and VA Maryland nurses as part of its annual Nurse Week donation drive.
The event at the Baltimore VA was one of more than 60 that are taking place around the country this month at VA facilities as part of the agency's Nationwide Baby Shower. Most of the events are being held in the days leading up to Mother's Day. More than 2,400 new veteran parents and parents-to-be have signed up for the events.
Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a press release that officials hoped the events will raise awareness and "ensure veterans have what they need to focus on the joy of growing their families in those stressful first weeks."
"Our goal is to celebrate veteran parents — especially moms — while also increasing awareness of VA's comprehensive maternity care services and to encourage women veterans to choose VA to support their health and wellness goals," he said.