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VA opens new wing for physical therapy, audiology treatment

When Anton DeMartino left the Army in the ’60s, he never could have imagined a time when veterans were welcomed home, cared for and embraced.

“Things have changed,” he admitted, moments after cutting a ribbon to celebrate the expansion of services at the Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic in Riverhead Monday. “I never thought I’d be at a ribbon cutting for something for veterans.”

About a dozen veterans were joined by elected officials and VA officials for the ribbon cutting that marked the official opening of a new wing offering two new services at the Riverhead clinic: audiology and physical therapy.

The new wing is equipped with a physical therapy room, audiology treatment rooms and a state-of-the-art sound booth for testing.

“Hearing loss and hearing-related disabilities are probably the most frequently seen disabilities amongst veterans,” said Thomas Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, whose office is next door.

Doctors Valerie Savarino and Kaitlin Thoden both said the need for audiology was evident in Riverhead. “Patients on the East End would come to Northport, they would have their hearing evaluated, they would get their hearing aids,” Dr. Savarino said. “But they were being lost in the follow up. It wasn’t convenient to get to Northport.”

Offering the service in Riverhead has led to increased enrollment, Dr. Thoden noted.

“We’re seeing those patients again and people who wanted to be seen at the VA but never wanted to make that drive,” she said.

According to Northport VA acting director Dr. Cathy Cruise, audiology had previously been offered in Riverhead via a mobile unit. “We had so many veterans that wanted that service. Bringing it inside allows us to do it at a higher level,” she said.

Riverhead is the easternmost VA clinic, with other locations in Patchogue, Bay Shore, Valley Stream and East Meadow. In addition to the new audiology and physical therapy services, the facility now offers an expanded primary care network and mental health services as well. Dr. Cruise said the VA would be able to send specialists out to Riverhead for pre- and post-op care, and other needs as they arise. “Bring the care to the veterans. That’s the goal,” she said. “We want everything to be as easy as possible.”

The six-year old clinic has been a “true blessing,” to veterans on the East End, Mr. Ronayne said. “This is a fine example of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” he said, also pointing out that the Riverhead campus is easily accessible since each county bus line stops at the complex.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an Army veteran, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He anticipates the new services will be well-used by veterans on the two forks.

“It’s a long way to go to Northport for routine services. It can be an all-day affair,” Mr. Zeldin said. “To be able to cut that in half by coming here to Riverhead to get the high quality of care that’s available is incredibly important for [veterans]. It’s important for their family. It’s a lot easier to get here for a veteran who lives in Orient, or who lives in Montauk.”

County Executive Steve Bellone said the expansion is part of a commitment to not only ensure that needed services are offered, but that they are accessible to veterans across Long Island. “There’s no one that we have a greater obligation to than our veterans,” he said.

The Riverhead location has been convenient for Mr. DeMartino, who lives in Riverhead and uses the facility for basic primary care. He was impressed while touring the new physical therapy and audiology offices. “Fortunately, I haven’t needed PT, but it’s nice to know if the day comes … It’s really great to see these improvements.”

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Photo caption: County Executive Steve Bellone was among the elected officials on hand to celebrate the official opening. (Tara Smith photo)