There is a house inside a building at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affair’s Aspinwall campus.
The house has everything one would expect – a doorbell, cable, flatware, a bedroom. There’s even a garage (but with half of a car).
The 1,100 square foot house, called MyHome, is a part of the VA’s Community Living Center, and it's designed to help patients recovering from physical or mental injuries transition safely back to their homes.
But that transition takes practice, according to VA Pittsburgh Rehab Site Supervisor Jason Fay.
“Any time you want to do something better, whether its throw a baseball or hit a golf ball, it’s practice, practice, practice," he said. "The more you do it, the better you get.”
Among those who have practiced at-home activities at MyHome is Ron Dambrosia.
A few months ago, Dambrosia developed a subdural hematoma, or a brain lesion, and underwent surgery twice. He now suffers from aphasia, which is the loss of speech and some physical abilities.
“I couldn’t tie two words together," Dambrosia said. "It was frustrating me to death.”
Dambrosia, of East McKeesport, was in the Army for 11 years with time spent in Vietnam, Europe and across the U.S. The 68-year-old still receives treatment at the VA.
An avid reader, Dambrosia was especially distressed that the aphasia robbed him of his ability to concentrate long enough to read. And he worries about scaring his grandkids.
“I’m not normal, and they’re not used to seeing Grandpa not normal," Dambrosia said. "That’s a worry of mine. I have a lot of worries now. I didn’t have many before.”
Dambrosia has come a long way since his surgeries in February. He has been working with speech pathologist Kim Eichhorn, who would join him along with Occupational Therapist Laurel Koval at MyHome.
Eichhorn has been assigning Dambrosia homework to strengthen his problem solving and concentration.
When they get together she tests him, asking him explain how to perform tasks, like baking cookies, from start to finish.
“In that task alone you have to plan, organize, remember – get back to the stove, make sure you don’t burn yourself," Eichhorn said. "There are a lot of cognitive and language underlying things that people don’t really think about that go into just baking some cookies."
During a March therapy session in MyHome’s fully functioning kitchen, Dambrosia consulted the instructions on the back of a container of raw cookie dough and turned on the oven.
He was also multi-tasking – making coffee to go with the cookies. He dutifully measured out the cinnamon vanilla nut-flavored coffee, all the while Eichhorn and Koval peppered him with questions and walked him back if he missed a step.
Once the coffee started percolating, he spooned the dough onto a cookie sheet and struggled to program the finicky oven timer. He shut the oven door.
Once done, he was ready to head to his next appointment on the same VA campus.
VA employees used to make a single visit to veterans’ homes to help them learn to negotiate their surroundings as they recovered, Fay said.
“We would run them through as many scenarios as possible," he said, "but it’s only a one time visit.”
The idea for putting MyHome in the VA was first floated five or six years ago, and after lots of stops and starts, construction on the $250,000 facility was completed in February.
Fay said now that the space is finished, veterans can work out the kinks of day-to-day living for a couple of weeks before they head home.
“I think people don’t realize that after you sustain a stroke or break a leg or have a hip replacement, that very simple things become very difficult things," Fay said. "Even getting dressed in the morning, brushing your teeth, that can become a challenge. What took you five minutes now takes you an hour. Those are the kind of things we want to make sure they can do safely before they leave here.”
As they work to reduce the number of patients who end up back in the hospital after hurting themselves at home, Fay said they are also trying to help vets maintain their quality of life, which can be compromised after a bad accident.
“Not only to do you have physical limitations, you have the fear of falling, the fear of future falls and that affects everything you do," Fay said. "And now you’re not an outgoing person, you don’t want to go out in the community. You’re cautious in everything you do."
A month after practicing living in MyHome, Dambrosia is staying with his daughter. He's feeling stronger and is happy to be with his family. But he's eager to get back to his own apartment.
“I need to do the things that I do on a daily basis," he said, "so I can determine whether or not I’m making progress.”