Student Spotlight: Advocating for Older Veterans

Online MPH student Saylor Lewtschenko combines her passions for elder care, Veterans’ health and data science to improve care options for those who have served.

Saylor Lewtschenko combines her studies in Brown’s Online MPH program with her work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where she works with data to improve support and services for older Veterans. In this interview, Lewtschenko shares her path to public health through her family connection to Veterans’ health care, how she uses data to improve elderly Veterans’ health options and her advice for public health professionals just getting started in their careers.

What led you to pursue an education and career in public health?

I am from a very rural community with a population of around 700 people. Our closest hospital is 45 minutes away. After watching my mother experience health issues and seeing firsthand all the shortcomings of our medical system, I knew I wanted to work in the health care field. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so that led me to a medical conference in Washington, D.C. where the American Medical Association was promoting public health in medical education. I was really interested in politics, and public health seemed like the perfect mixture of both. This led me to the University of Rochester where I got my bachelor’s degree in health policy and to my career with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).

Can you tell us more about your mother’s experience within the health care system?

My mom was a firefighter in the Air Force. She was medically discharged in the ‘90s after being diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a lung disease most likely caused by the chemical exposure that came from doing her job. Many years later, she started developing other mysterious illnesses: fibromyalgia, small fiber neuropathy, the list goes on.

For a long time, we have been trying to determine if she's eligible for V.A. benefits, but it doesn’t seem like she will be because she served in the military before the September 11 attacks. 

Recently, with the improvements under the PACT Act, which was passed in 2022 and extended benefits to Veterans—specifically people exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances while serving—any post-9/11 Veteran can walk into a V.A. facility and get free care without officially enrolling in health care benefits. But there are still a lot of Veterans that cannot do that. They're not eligible for benefits like the GI Bill or V.A. home loans. So my mom is not alone; it’s an ongoing challenge to navigate. 

Did your mother's experience within the health care system inspire you to pursue a career in Veterans’ health? 

It did influence my decision. In my sophomore year at the University of Rochester, I took an “Introduction to Public Health” course that had many guest lecturers. My current boss actually gave a lecture on Veterans’ health and I thought it seemed interesting. My mom was a Veteran and my husband was in the military at the time, and I could see myself working for the V.A., so I reached out to learn more. It turns out that the University of Rochester does a lot of work with the V.A., specifically with the Department of Geriatrics and Extended Care. 

Eventually, I interned for the V.A. and then later I became a government contractor. After graduation, I was hired on as a Health Science Specialist and currently work for the Geriatrics and Extended Care Data Analysis Center. It has given me a lot of skills. I didn't think I would be working with data at all, but I love it! My work at the V.A. combines all of my interests: Veterans’ health and elderly patients. 

What influenced your interest in geriatric health? 

Honestly, I love older people and have always had an interest in geriatrics. My grandparents helped raise me and I have a super strong connection with them. I want to advocate for elderly people because so many are treated unfairly. A lot of elderly people don't have family members to take care of them, or their family members are getting older. Elderly people are just generally more forgotten, and I want to make their lives better.

Medical foster homes are residential homes where Veterans are offered 24/7 care. It's a cool concept that promotes aging in place. We’re evaluating these homes, hoping they prove beneficial for both Veterans and the V.A.

Saylor Lewtschenko '25 Health Science Specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Online MPH Student
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How does your work as a Health Science Specialist within the V.A. impact elderly people?

In addition to coordinating projects, analyzing data and performing other back-end tasks, I am currently working on statistical platforms to create a dashboard that presents the geriatric services offered by the V.A., and the utilization of those services. We are looking at utilization trends and cost. 

I am also the coordinator and analyst on evaluations regarding Medical Foster Home expansion in rural areas. This coordination is between my team, the quantitative team, and the Seattle-Denver Center of Innovation, the qualitative team. Medical foster homes are residential homes where Veterans are offered 24/7 care. It's a cool concept that promotes aging in place. We’re evaluating these homes, hoping they prove beneficial for both Veterans and the V.A.. 

I came to Brown because I wanted to learn something new, including qualitative research, while focusing on my topics of interest. Brown is amazing, and we're learning from some really exciting experts in their field. I’m hoping I’ll be able to do my MPH Practicum with a researcher at Brown who also works for the V.A.—I'm going to be focusing more on people with dementia. 

What has surprised you most while working for the V.A.?

It has been surprising to see how multifaceted laws are and how complex they are to implement in the real world. There's something called the Cleland Dole Act, which is relatively new. It expands benefits to homeless Veterans, but there are so many issues with simply expanding benefits. If we are going to expand benefits to homeless Veterans, what does that look like? A lot of these Veterans don't have a driver's license. How are you supposed to get them health care and ensure that they are using that health care? 

We are using data analysis to evaluate whether or not programs are effective based on the data that's coming in and the outcomes we observe. It is surprising to see how interconnected things are and how passionate the people I work with are. We are all on the same mission, no matter where you work in the V.A. It’s incredible to have a job that feels like you're making a difference. That’s why we go into public health!

Do you think having Veterans in your family has connected you to the V.A.’s mission more strongly?

I've become more passionate about my work now that my husband's a Veteran. He’s 25 and very healthy, but he deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and was exposed to many things there. Having experienced my mom’s health issues, I realize that he might not feel anything now because he’s young and healthy, but I still wonder whether his service could lead to poor health outcomes in twenty years. A lot of Veterans don’t want to think about that, and I get it. I’ve learned that Veterans often don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves. We need people who care to advocate for them.

What advice would you give to aspiring public health professionals who are passionate about making a difference in their field?

I’m still early in my career, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned so far is to ask a lot of questions. Identify a problem or a shortcoming, and then ask questions about why that is. By identifying where shortcomings lie, and asking questions, we can work toward remedying those shortcomings.

Even when things are good, ask questions about how you can make them better. There are a lot of programs for Home-Based Primary Care for Veterans that work great, but there is a reason why Medical Foster Homes came into existence. The V.A. is investing in this research because they want to know if Medical Foster Homes can be better for Veterans. Having an array of programs, and educating families and Veterans on these programs, empowers them to make informed choices.