Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
While being held in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, Dean Whitaker’s fellow soldiers commandeered the wooden slats from his cot as part of an escape attempt.
After months of sleeping on the defective cot, Whitaker developed a pair of lumps in his lower back, the first of many medical issues he would develop related to his service. Over the following decades, Whitaker would turn to the Southern Nevada Veterans Affairs health system time and again for medical care, traveling to clinics and offices throughout the valley in search of treatment, including knee and shoulder replacement surgeries.
On Monday, Whitaker stood in the brightly lit halls of the new VA hospital in North Las Vegas, one of about 1,000 people who had come to see the dedication of the $600 million building, and marveled at how far the VA health system had come.
“This is really something else. They did a great job,” Whitaker said. “All of our new veterans will have the advantage of being treated in this facility well into the future.”
Whitaker’s sentiments were echoed Monday by veterans and politicians, as residents and leaders gathered to celebrate the completion of a project that took nearly a decade of planning and six years of construction.
“This day, this event, this complex is about fulfilling America’s promise to Nevada’s veterans with the delivery of accessible, comprehensive, quality health care,” said John Bright, director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski, Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller, and Rep. Shelley Berkley were on hand. The hospital will begin taking patients Aug. 14.
“I can remember the first time I came out to this site, I thought ‘You’ve got to be kidding, it’s in the middle of nowhere,’” Reid said. “This is a state-of-the-art facility. ... I’m so happy that we can finally put it to work.”
The six-story hospital, which covers more than 1 million square feet, is the first-ever VA hospital in Southern Nevada and the first such facility to open in nearly 20 years.
Its staff of about 1,800 medical professionals and administrators will be able to offer surgery, specialty care, mental health services, rehabilitation and extended care. The complex also includes a 120-bed skilled nursing care facility and an ambulatory care center.
The hospital, on 151 acres on North Pecos Road, has room to grow, Berkley said.
“We’ve got a lot of room to build, perhaps a Fisher House, perhaps a homeless shelter for the many homeless veterans who are living on our streets,” she said. “In not too many years to come, this will be a very vibrant part of Southern Nevada.”
Fisher Houses, run by a nonprofit foundation, provide free or low-cost housing to veterans and families receiving treatment at military medical centers, similar to Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Las Vegas resident Kenny Rogers, a World War II Navy veteran suffering from a spinal cord injury, said the hospital will make it easier to receive treatment because all of the services he’ll need will be in a single location.
Rogers said he’s received good care through the VA in the past, and he’s looking forward to receiving treatment in the new center.
“It’s very impressive,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was as large as it is.”
Whitaker praised the hospital’s ease of access — it’s right off the Las Vegas Beltway — its ample parking and the clearly marked directions to help patients navigate the inside of the hospital.