Face of InnoVAtion is a regular series from the VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) focusing on VA employees who are working to change and save Veteran lives through innovation. This month meet Francesca Zeringue, medical support assistant at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System (HCS).
Francesca Zeringue has a long history with both horses and Veterans. The VA Salt Lake City HCS caregiver, who speaks four different languages and is a first-generation American, comes from a family of Veterans, including her son who served as a U.S. Marine. She also has 18 years of experience with equine-assisted therapy, with 17 years of saddle training green horses and teaching basic horsemanship and riding. Those two histories collided with her work with the VA Salt Lake City Whole Health Service’s equine-assisted activities and therapies (EEAT) for Veterans, where she provides Veterans with mental health care through horses.
EEAT pairs Veterans and horses together to help Veterans cope with mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies have shown that horses can reduce anxiety and depression while improving mood – and the Veterans participating in the program are having fantastic results. Given her background with horses, Zeringue jumped at the chance to become actively involved after hearing about the creation of the EEAT program.
The EEAT program was innovative in and of itself, but Zeringue, like all innovators in the VHA Innovation Ecosystem, wasn’t content with sitting still. She saw the amazing affect it had on the Veterans who were able to participate and wanted to bring that same treatment to those who couldn’t. For a variety of reasons – physical, mental, and/or distance – many Veterans can’t participate in in-person EEAT, so Zeringue investigated how to bring the horses to them. After receiving an email about the VHA Innovators Network (iNET) Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program, Zeringue decided to apply with her prototype for RTREAAT (Remote Therapeutic Reality Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies).
“What I love about the Innovation Space,” said Zeringue, “is that I have a wonderful support system that not only encourages me but provides guidance and ‘get’ my vision. I can think big. And instead of being told to dream smaller, I am aided in breaking it down to doable steps to make my innovation come to fruition.”
RTREAAT aims to bring a virtual, fully immersive experience to Veterans. Now, working alongside Unlimited Tomorrow through iNET’s Greenhouse and with students from the University of Utah, Zeringue is helping grow the practice, and is a fantastic example of how VA can deliver more through collaboration. The trio of collaborators are working to create this innovative and unique experience for all Veterans, anywhere. Zeringue’s passion for both engaging with Veterans and working alongside other passionate VA staff is driving her effort forward.
“I believe people would be surprised by the quantity and range of creative innovations that are presented at VA and the thought and work that goes into each these innovations,” notes Zeringue of the innovative network she’s become part of through iNET. “People would also be surprised at how innovation is encouraged and fostered at VA. VA strives to create a safe, healthy, and welcoming environment for its staff and patients.”
Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.