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Annmarie Dunican came to Rhode Island in 1996 as a medical student from the University of Medicine/Dentistry of New Jersey. The budding surgeon, a 26-year-old Seton Hall graduate, did her residency at Rhode Island Hospital.
“I spent a month or two working here at the VA,” she  said last week.
Little did she imagine that 25 years later she would be running the entire local VA medical operation. Last week, the VA Providence Healthcare System (VAPHS) announced her appointment as its new chief of staff. She will be responsible for delivering health care to the 35,000 Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts veterans enrolled in the VA health system.
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Providence VA Medical Center is the major facility, but Dunican will also oversee services at Community-Based Outpatient Clinics in New Bedford, Hyannis, and Middletown. She will also supervise the Eagle Square Annex in Providence, which houses eye and vision care services, along with audiology (hearing and speech).
Dunican knows this network; she joined VAPHS as a staff surgeon in 2006, and by 2016 she was Chief of Surgery. She was named Deputy Chief of Staff in 2019.
Then COVID hit, and the local VA response to the pandemic fell largely on Dunican’s shoulders, She was, in effect, the operations officer for the massive statewide vaccine rollout.
Lawrence Connell, VAPHS director, was impressed with her ability to jump into a bad situation and lead an effective response. “Dr. Dunican was the driving force for our outside shot clinics at the height of the pandemic,” said Connell. “She has a can-do attitude and is the perfect go-getter we need at the helm.”
While Duncan would love to focus on her projects and ideas for bettering the VA medical experience for veterans, the COVID threat is still the elephant in the room.
“One of our attending physicians is Dr. Ashish Jha, of the Brown University School of Public Health,” said Dunican, “He is a leading health policy scholar — you’ve probably seen him discussing COVID on major news networks such as CNN and MSNBC.
“He spoke to our entire staff recently. He told us that we’re going to have to deal with more variants. He expects we will be experiencing COVID cycles for the foreseeable future. And then COVID will recede, and we will go back to doing business as usual.
“His message was to learn to live with it. We still have to treat our patients’ other medical needs. We can’t afford another cutback in care such as happened last year, when people did not feel safe coming in to see a doctor. So we have to find the right balance. And it’s going to be a struggle.”
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Other than COVID, Dunican’s biggest challenge is coping with the increased administrative tasks and paperwork while still maintaining her edge as a “working doctor,” as she calls it.
“I try to schedule my meetings early in the week, so later on I have time to perform some surgeries.”
Her surgical expertise has also been recognized by her peers, who recently elected her president of the RI Chapter of the American College of Surgeons.
Dunican is a general surgeon — “soft tissue procedures, anywhere from the neck to the knees,” she explains. “It could be a hernia, or perhaps colon or breast cancer.
“I have to get out of the office and deal with patients, not only for my own sense of balance but also so that others don’t think of me as being locked away in an ivory tower.”
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Balancing the budget is also a challenge. “We want to continue expanding, and adding more services,” she says.
For example, the facility has streamlined its pharmacy operation by adding a robotic prescription dispensing system. A patient can now pick up his medication from the machine in the middle of the night if he wishes.
Dunican also points with pride to a newly renovated Wellness Center, double the size of what it was pre-COVID. Sometimes called “whole health,” this concept combines preventive medicine, exercise and a new mental approach to one’s health. They added a chiropractor in November who is already much in demand — and an on-staff acupuncturist starts work today.
“We can’t turn back the clock,” Dunican concludes. “We can’t make you younger, we can’t make your joints not hurt when you wake up in the morning. But we can teach you how to cope, or to get up and move because you’re going to feel better when you do.”
Dunican also compliments the VA’s strong construction team. For example, adding the new parking garage has been a total game changer. Any veteran who has visited the Providence health center in recent years can describe what a nightmare it was to find a parking place. Patients would miss appointments for badly-needed treatments because they were driving around, hoping for someone else to leave.
In response, the facility became the first in the nation to offer valet parking, at no cost to the veteran (not even tips, which the parkers are forbidden to accept). Combined with the new garage, parking is no longer an issue.
When asked what message she wanted to convey to the community, she did not hesitate. “I want to remind everyone that we’re ideally suited to take care of aging veterans. They are a really special group that needs special attention, and often a different focus of care from that provided to those who did not undergo the military experience. We are able to put veterans first, and I am not sure that’s how it would work elsewhere.”
On the personal side, she met her husband Tom Rocco while both were medical residents. They now live in Portsmouth. When asked what she does in her free time, she laughed. “I have four kids, and that about covers it!” she said.
Her children have a passion for ice skating, and for six years she served on the board of the nonprofit Warwick Figure Skaters club. “I’m not much of a skater myself, but I’m really good at gluing crystals on costumes now.”
She and Tom enjoy sailing and over the years have owned shares in sailboats with friends. “We finally gave it up last year,” she sighed. “We just never had time to use it.”
She has now downsized to a kayak.
To report an announcement, or to add a future event to our calendar, please email the details (including a contact name and phone number/email address) to [email protected]
Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m., Open house, Department of Rhode Island Marine Corps League, Cranston Fraternal Order of Police, 1344 Cranston St., Cranston.  Contact Patrick Maguire, [email protected]. (Rescheduled from Jan. 29.) 
Fridays, noon to 1 p.m., “Yoga for the Military,” Warwick Vet Center, 2038 Warwick Ave., all levels welcome, yoga mats and blocks provided.  Call Paul Santilli at (401) 739-0167. Veteran must be enrolled with the Vet Center prior to attending. To check eligibility or for questions, please call (401) 739-0167 or email the veteran outreach program specialist at [email protected]
Thursday, 6 p.m.,  United Veterans Council Of Rhode Island, William F. Powers Building, 1 Capitol Hill, Providence, in the second-floor conference room. Contact John Gallo,  [email protected]


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