2012 Issues   /   October 2012

VA Researcher Draws on Co-Workers’ Strength to Win Olympic Bronze Medal

By U.S. Medicine

By Steve Lewis

BEDFORD, MA — Natalie Dell, MPH, a project coordinator for mental-health studies focusing on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, has served VA since completing graduate school in 2009.

In her spare time, the researcher at the Bedford, MA, VA Medical Center trained for the Olympics, winning a bronze medal this year as part of the quadruple scull team.

Dell modestly gives a good deal of the credit to the inspiration she drew from her VA colleagues. In fact, she calls her involvement with VA “the biggest determining factor” in her Olympic success. Of critical importance was that she was allowed to telecommute during her training, though that was only the beginning, she says.


Natalie Dell, far right, with her Olympic bronze medal-winning quadruple scull team.

“They gave me financial support, but I also received incredible emotional support from my co-workers,” Dell asserts.

She says she hadn’t planned to go to work for VA after graduation but “fell into” the position after discussions with one of her professors, recounting, “She told me ‘If you’re looking for a job where you can really make a difference and that is rewarding, you should work for VA’ — and she was right. It was the best advice I could have received.”

At VA, Dell has been able to pursue her “passion for public health,” having been project manager of a research study that examined “Health-Seeking for Depression in Primary Care Patients.” Her main goal was to learn what occurred after veterans screened positive for depression, e.g. what kind of care they received.

“My role as a researcher is to perceive what they’re thinking; I love to hear their viewpoints — not just on primary care but overall on VA as a healthcare system,” says Dell. Her mission, as she sees it, is “to improve the care veterans are provided and improve their access to and understanding of that care.”

A different path

Her position with VA also allowed Dell to continue an unorthodox path to the Olympics.

“What usually happens for rowing is, you graduate college and are then recruited directly into elite training at the National Team Training Center in New Jersey,” she explains. “Unfortunately, when I graduated — having rowed in a club program rather than at a large university — I had not learned much in the way of rowing technique or fitness, but I loved rowing and I knew I wanted take it to another level.”

So, she moved to Boston and trained for three years, but she also had to get a job — which was where VA came in. “When I finally got invited to train to compete for the team, I was the only person who came from a full-time work environment, and [VA] chose to keep me on a part-time basis as I trained,” Dell recalls.

She says she “totally disagrees” with those who saw that as a difficult arrangement. “In between practice sessions, I could come home and put rowing away for a couple of hours and work and then come back to the next practice rejuvenated,” she recalls.


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