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Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient: Karen Lopez

On a Mission: Reforming Veterans’ Health Care from Inside the VA

Karen Lopez has dedicated herself to reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration one piece at a time.

Karen has been struggling with her husband’s care since 2005, and her frustration dealing with the VA left her no alternative than to push for a revamping of the system. She is doing this from the inside, starting where she works: the VA hospital in Orlando.

“I want to help the veterans and their families in this journey, especially the new ones who are coming into the system,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories—how patients would fall through the cracks, how family members struggled to get appointments for their spouses. I want to make sure the gaps in the system don’t happen to them, at least on my watch.”

Karen works in physical therapy and rehabilitation, dealing with patients with traumatic brain injury who need physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or dietary changes. When she feels the system is too rigid, she rebels.

“I say, ‘No.’ I’m a military spouse myself. I know the struggles of these veterans. I know how hard it is for them to get an appointment in a timely manner,” she said.

Karen’s husband, Luis, a native of Puerto Rico, enlisted in the Marine Corps on April 15, 2004. He was assigned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and, after a year of specialized training as a sniper and just days after Karen gave birth to their first child, a son, he was deployed to Camp Fallujah in Iraq.

Not even three months into his deployment, his unit was ambushed by a roadside bomb. Several IED explosions left him unconscious and killed his spotter corpsman and five other fellow Marines. Because Luis was not bleeding, he was sent right back on duty. Despite severe headaches, chronic back pain and excruciating pain in his knees and shoulders, he kept fighting.

Not until he returned stateside in November 2005 was he thoroughly examined at Camp Lejeune, Karen said.

“There is where our journey started,” she said, rattling off his medical problems and treatments. “Multiple daily appointments, MRIs, X-rays, CT scans, Pet scans, labs, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy.” She said that was followed by bilateral knee replacements, shoulder surgeries and seven vocal cords procedures, as well as treatment for traumatic brain injuries.

“I would check him in and out with his command every day at the Wounded Warrior Regiment until his physical evaluation board granted him a medical retirement in July 2009,” she said.

From the beginning, Karen had to not only learn about all of those injuries but she also had to figure out what to do to help Luis and ensure he was getting the proper holistic treatment. It was a lot to ask a young woman with a baby.

“I became very emotional, with mood swings due to extremely long days, and physically drained,” she said. “It started taking a toll on me at the beginning as I could not sleep. Fear and anxiety were taking over me … I was afraid to fail my husband in his care as I once promised to be with him through good and bad, through sickness and health.

“Being a spouse and caregiver of a disabled veteran at such a young age is a full-time job that requires your entire dedication, strength, compassion, love, knowledge and time,” she said.

When she heard she had received the Pillars of Strength Scholarship, she cried.

“For me, it was like playing the lotto,” she said. “You try and try and you never make a dollar. I’ve been waiting so long to continue my education and get my master’s degree, but with all of our struggles it has just been too hard. So, I was just shocked. This is very big for me.”

Karen said the scholarship will enable her to do graduate work in health care administration.

“I want to make it to the top within the VA system so that I can fix it from the top,” she said. “I’ve been in the system for three years, and already they are sending me new employees to train. I tell those new recruits, if we all have the same goal, little by little we can make a huge difference.”