By Helen Susan Edelman
When Linda Weiss ’83 was growing up in Albany, N.Y., she loved nothing better than to go to the library, where she, her sister and her brother could borrow 10 books apiece, twice a month. “I read mine, I read theirs,” she said. “Thirty books, every two weeks. I loved to read then and I still do.”
Weiss, who has been on SUNY Empire’s College Council since 2006 and has established a scholarship through the Empire State College Foundation, was raised by parents who valued education and academic achievement. This nurturing, intelligent environment inspired her academic and professional journey.
“It’s so important to encourage people to be curious and to learn,” she said. The encouragement fueled a determination that led to her 42-year career at the Stratton VA Medical Center, where she started work as an X-ray technician in 1973, and rose to the position of director.
Weiss is eloquent, informed, straightforward, vibrant, reflective and energetic. These qualities plus her persistent dedication propelled her from her first entry into the health care world to eventually running an integrated health care system. Stratton VA serves 37,000 patients with 1,245 staff through a 125-bed medical center and 12 community-based outpatient clinics in an operation stretching from Kingston, N.Y., to Canada. Home-based long-term care and mental health services also are provided.
“I loved what I did as a technician,” she said. “It was an exciting time, with the introduction of nuclear medicine, diagnostic ultrasounds, other new technologies, new pharmaceuticals and continuing, on-the-job training for me at the VA. The doctors didn’t care what letters you had after your name, as long as you wanted to work hard and learn. At the time, I thought it was interesting enough for me to spend the rest of my career doing that.”
But, after 10 years, Weiss could see that, through higher education, she could greatly enhance her skills and advance professionally. “Like most adult learners, I knew that I wanted to concentrate on my studies, which could, at any moment, be interrupted by life circumstances. I didn’t have the luxury of taking courses forever. Also, I had limited funds. So, I enrolled at Empire State College in a bachelor’s program in Health Sciences, the first person to create this degree plan. From what I understand, it became a template and many students have referred to it since, as they design their own degree in the same or
Weiss focused diligently on the relevant course work, but there was an unexpected bonus: the requirement to also complete studies in the liberal arts.
“It was fabulous. All that reading – the Victorian novel in England, modern drama and, especially, law psychology.” The substance of that course became a vital tool for helping patients and their families cope with terminal illness or other life-changing circumstances.
“Going back to get my B.S. was an opportunity to hone my critical thinking skills,” she said, “which are important when you think about budget, ethics, human resources, marketing, programs, innovation and, most importantly, supporting people through decisions like whether to be kept alive mechanically.”
Lessons learned touched her personal life when she found herself supporting her own mother, who had to face a similarly difficult decision when she developed heart disease. “She had been active all her life, but it became apparent she was failing. We went to the doctor, who knew he had to give her the bad news that she was in decline. My mother reached out, patted the doctor on the shoulder and told him, ‘I’ve had a wonderful life. No surgery.’ After that, she had to sit down more, but she was very clear and comfortable with her decision.”
Weiss lived with her parents for the last 26 years of their 57-year marriage. They died on the same day, in 2006. She said, “They had raised me and I came back to help them. It was the right decision and, although I turned down great opportunities outside of Albany, I have never regretted it.”
Meanwhile, Empire State College was by no means the last step in Weiss’ academic trajectory. She earned a Master of Science in Health Systems Management from Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., attended the Kellogg Foundation Partners of the Americas Fellowship in International Leadership and Development, participated in Leadership VA and the VA Health Care Leadership Institute and took a VA Senior Executive Strategic Leadership course at the University of North Carolina. She also raised a son, Russell, whose unconventional path led him to become a professional ski patroller, who specializes in avalanche control. Russell lives with his wife and Weiss’ first grandchild in Australia, where she has visited and, now that there is a baby, she will frequently revisit.
Her connection to SUNY Empire is profound and ongoing. The indefatigable Weiss has been an assistant professor and instructor at ESC, sharing her knowledge about health care systems management, health care law and ethics, health care policy, public administration and organizational theory. “It’s lots of fun to engage with the students,” she said. “I’m very proud of them and I learn from them, too.” She also actively recruits new students among friends, family and colleagues.
Weiss also is passionate about her role on the College Council, an advisory body comprising members from all walks of life; she is the sole alumna on the council. Lively discussions revolve around such topics as curriculum, finance and academic programs at the college.
“The members of the College Council have extraordinarily busy lives, but they know they serve as a critical sounding board and are very committed to the process and to the meaning of the college,” she said, crediting President Merodie Hancock with fostering positive progress in many areas. “She is a rare person. Not only does she appreciate the academic philosophy of Empire State College, but she also has business sense.”
Weiss was quick to point out her own bias and agenda as a council member – ensuring veterans’ special needs are represented and served by the college. “The college is doing an exemplary job with active-duty military and service members in the National Guard and Reserves, as well as veterans. We even encourage students who are in combat zones,” she said.
The issue of how veterans are cared for in every aspect of their lives has been central to Weiss for a very long time – not just from the macro standpoint of running a huge organization that serves them, but at the most basic level: the individual veteran.
“We get a bill in the mail for our water and one for our power, but we never get a bill for our freedom. Someone has already paid that for you – a veteran. Long after they take off their uniforms, we have to fulfill our compact to care for our citizen-soldiers and their families,” she said.
As recently as 2014, the last beneficiary of the last Civil War veteran was receiving VA services. “No war is ever over until we have taken care of every soldier and his or her family,” Weiss emphasized.
Those served by the VA today are primarily veterans of WWI, WWII, the Korean War and a burgeoning population “who saw action in the Global War on Terror,” Weiss said, adding that their wounds are not all visible, as war can be an assault on mental health.
“One in every four Americans will experience a significant mental-health issue in his or her lifetime, but there are challenges to getting reimbursed for mental health services,” Weiss said, noting that “we pay for heart attacks, broken legs and gall bladder surgery without blinking an eye, but when it comes to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBIs (traumatic brain injury), private and public insurance companies often hesitate to pay.”
She added that treatment for substance abuse is part of the health services picture, as many veterans struggling with PTSD “self-medicate.”
“Some are schizophrenic, some have borderline personality disorders, some will need long-term
care – not a quick intervention – and that involves overall good health care, education or training for
jobs, helping the veteran feel like a contributor to society through work or volunteering and safe, affordable housing.”
Housing is a central concern. “How many veterans are sleeping on their sister’s sofa until they wear out their welcome or run out of money and end up living in their car?” She emphasized how important it is to develop options for these veterans through case management.
When Weiss assumed the director role at the VA, only 7 percent of the workforce were veterans. Now, a third of the medical center’s employees also served in the military. “Their experience, their compassion and their skills are the best outreach,” she explained.
“The VA is a discretionary line item controlled by Congress,” she noted, “and such facilities are entrusted to do the very best with the funds they provide.”
She added that the VA is often thanked in obituaries, calling it a tribute to the VA culture and spirit, as well as an acknowledgment that the focus needs to be “on the very next veteran cared for, and
the one after that.”
It is no surprise that Weiss has a abundance of awards, ranging from 26 VA Performance Awards to the U.S. Public Health Service Director’s Commendation. But the one she memorializes in a photograph on her desk is the Empire State College Northeast Center Distinguished Graduate Award.
“That’s my story,” she said. To underscore the vision that has guided her career, she cited the wisdom of President Abraham Lincoln, drawn from his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”