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Emma Melancon remembers the early days when it was called "shell shock."

Now it's called post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the symptoms -- difficulty sleeping, depression, avoidance of relationships, and worst of all, continually reliving the nightmare of combat that caused it in the first place -- remain the same.

Veterans ospital is marking its 50th anniversary this year and Melancon, the local VA's first 50-year employee, was there for much of it. She still is, but now as a volunteer.

She's not a medical person, but as receptionist in the Behavior Health Clinic she was in a position to offer support and encouragement and often was the first person the veterans encountered.

She retired three years ago but still volunteers 10 hours a week doing many of the same administrative duties.

"I guess I never really left," the 72-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident said. "I enjoyed working there then and I enjoy it now. The only difference is, now I can leave when I want."

And she doesn't get paid.

"Yes, that, too."

She started working for the VA in 1946 at an outpatient clinic on Main Street and was transferred to the hospital in 1956.

After World War II, the hospital was the dream of the 100-member Buffalo Citizens Veterans Hospital Committee, headed by John N. Garver.

Their dream came true on Jan. 14, 1947, when Peter E. McKinnon, a former combat infantryman who lost both legs in Germany, used a chrome-plated shovel to break ground for the $18 million project.

McKinnon was there three years later when the 1,000-bed facility that was the first of its size in the post-World War II VA system was dedicated.

The first patients were welcomed on Jan. 16, 1950, by retired Brig. Gen. Howard E. Fuller, the facility's first manager.

There were three wards at the beginning and gradually 25 were filled.

From the beginning, the hospital's close ties to the University of Buffalo Medical School on the other side of Bailey Avenue assured the availability of competent doctors as well as breakthroughs in medical research.

VA physicians Andrew Gage and William Chardack worked with engineer Wilson Greatbatch to develop the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. The area's first heart transplant took place at the VA in May 1984.

Over its history, the hospital has handled more than a million patient visits.

Today, the VA cares for more vets than ever, treating nearly 29,000 last year at its sites in Buffalo and Batavia and outpatient clinics in Niagara Falls, Lockport, Jamestown and Dunkirk. Plans call for three more outpatient clinics to open this year.

Buffalo VA researchers are working on cures for AIDS, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.

William Feeley, director of the facility, says it offers "not just high-tech, but high-touch" compassionate health care.

"The future promises exciting advances in health care. We can't begin to imagine where these advances will lead in the next 50 years," he said.

"Keeping the Promise" is a monthly feature of The Buffalo News.

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