This week with chat with Karen Collins, the public affairs officer at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and Clinics. The Wisconsin native moved from New Orleans to Tampa because of a job transfer about six months ago. She worked at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in New Orleans. Collins previously served as public affairs specialist for the American Red Cross during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and several other national disasters. She also was a member of the public affairs team with the Army Corps of Engineers during the building of New Orleans’ hurricane protection system. Collins lives in Hudson in Pasco County.
Q: What gives you the greatest joy working at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital?
Answer: The best part of my job is I get to see or learn something new or amazing practically every day. There are so many advancements and research projects taking place that sometimes it is hard to keep up. For example, the very first week I worked at Haley I saw a paralyzed service member stand up and walk using an exoskeleton. That moment confirmed for me that I made the right choice in coming to Tampa to work for the VA. It was absolutely incredible.
Q: A lot of people might not know the veterans’ hospital is busier most days than the average hospital. Why?
Answer: I don’t know if that is necessarily true. There are hospitals that have more beds than we do in Tampa. I guess it depends on the criteria you use. On a typical day, we see about 5,000 to 6,000 people between the main campus in Tampa and our facilities in New Port Richey, Zephyrhills, Lakeland and Brooksville. There is a dense veteran population in Florida. We’re one of the busiest VA facilities in the country and that is with Bay Pines VA Medical Center on the other side of the (Howard Frankland) bridge. In fact, we used to be the busiest before VA split the East Central Florida area from us and began building a new hospital in Orlando. I’m sure the number of Veterans in the area has a lot to do with the retired population, but we also have a large military community who often decide to stay in the Tampa area once they leave the service.
Q: What is a normal day like for you at the veterans’ hospital?
Answer: There is no such thing as a “normal” day in public affairs. That’s one of the things I love about my job. Every day brings new people and challenges through my door. The one consistent thing is that I am surrounded by individuals who really care about veterans and do what they can to provide them with the best possible care.
Q: Does your job include responsibilities beyond being the media contact at the veterans’ hospital? If so, what?
Answer: I’m responsible for all aspects of our internal and external communications program. Obviously, I can’t do it all alone. I’m grateful to the team here at Haley. We’re busy all the time, not just with media relations, but also writing and reviewing newsletters and other communication materials, maintaining all social and electronic media, coordinating special events, and working with congressional staff, veterans’ organizations and other community representatives and groups. We treat quite a few active duty service members and have the busiest polytrauma and spinal cord injury units in the VA. This makes us pretty high profile, so we see a lot of VIPs coming to visit the troops and tour the facility.
Q: What has been your favorite job ever and why?
Answer: That is a hard question to answer without sounding corny, because I really do feel lucky to come to work every day. I have done everything from bartending in the French Quarter (in New Orleans) to taking photos during the middle of a hurricane. I even de-tasseled corn one summer when I was 13, definitely not my favorite job. I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years, but being part of the mission to serve the men and women who sacrificed to defend our freedoms and our country is by far the noblest thing I have done.
-- Kenneth Knight