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VA doctor has military roots

September 21, 1998

VA DoctorBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




Eleanore Hill was an 18-year-old college freshman when she decided she wanted to become a doctor.

She recalls the incident clearly: She was working at a department store when a woman had a seizure in front of her cash register.

"I thought, 'Boy, if I were a doctor, I'd know what to do,'" Hill said.

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Hill, who has worked for the last five years at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Martinsburg, W.Va., became the full-time doctor at the Hagerstown VA outpatient clinic earlier this month.

The clinic, which opened in May, provides primary health care to veterans who previously had to drive to Martinsburg for basic treatment and checkups.

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Hill, 58, has had more than a professional attachment to the military. Her husband, Dr. James Hill, also works for the VA Medical Center and served a year during the Vietnam War.

Hill's family doctor as a child growing up in the Bronx was captured by the Germans during Ward War II. Her uncle was killed in action in Africa during that war.

The events touched her life, Hill said, and her career path was not accidental.

"I've been very thankful that the men defended our country for our freedoms," Hill said.

Working among those people is extremely rewarding, she said.

"They share their wartime experiences," Hill said. "That makes it a special atmosphere."

Before beginning her new job full time on Sept. 8, Hill was one of 10 doctors who served the Hagerstown clinic on a rotating basis.

But Katherine Smits, the clinic's coordinator, said the VA Medical Center decided to change that approach.

Now, Hill serves full time along with another physician, who sees patients half of the time.

Hill brings to the job experience treating older patients and an intense interest in preventive health care.

"I think people don't realize what they eat becomes part of their body. And you only get one body," said Hill, who served in the geriatrics ward of the Finan Center in Cumberland, Md., for about five years.

It's tough breaking old habits, but Hill said she takes great satisfaction when her patients stop smoking and make dietary changes.

"The sooner you start, the better off you are," she said.

Even when it is age 70 as opposed to 80, Hill said. Many older patients assume it is too late to alter behavior, she said.

"It's certainly better to start later than never," she said.

Hill said that philosophy is at the heart of the VA Medical Center's decision to open the Hagerstown clinic, which is on the third floor of the Western Maryland Hospital Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

By bringing health care closer to veterans in Washington County and southcentral Pennsylvania, VA officials hope to increase convenience for thousands of veterans who otherwise would drive a great distance - or perhaps not go at all - for routine doctor visits.

It also has the advantage of reducing the expense and burden for the VA hospital, officials said.

For Hill, that means constantly checking on patients and recording information. On a recent day after the clinic closed for the evening, for instance, Hill was plugging data into the computer about a patient who received a heart transplant.

Catching a problem before it becomes critical can make the difference between life and death, Hill said.

"That's what makes the job gratifying. After hundreds of negative rectal exams, you get one or two that are positive - that makes a big difference in a person's life," she said.

Hill got a medical degree in 1967 from the State University of New York at Syracuse, where she met her husband. She studied psychiatry briefly at Georgetown University before switching to pathology.

Hill left medicine for about seven years to raise two adopted daughters.

When she returned to medicine, she worked at a hospital in Roanoke, Va.

Her husband grew up in Hagerstown. His father owned Hill's Toy and Novelty Store in downtown Hagerstown until it closed in the 1960s.

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