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After seven years of construction, the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center opened last week in Lake Nona Medical City, adjacent to the UCF Health Sciences campus.

With its doors wide open, the VA center will provide relief for Central Florida's 102,000 veterans, and also will provide UCF students in the College of Medicine with more opportunities.

Collaborations between UCF and the center have already begun as UCF professors are now treating patients at the center, and staff at the center are teaching classes at UCF's College of Medicine.

Wendy Sarubbi, a spokeswoman for the College of Medicine, said students in their third year will start to do their clerkship, or real-world training, at the center and will care for the nation's heroes under the care and supervision of physicians.

"I think the idea of having a huge VA hospital nearby is an opportunity for our students to learn the unique needs of veterans and how to treat them," Sarubbi said.

With the center's opening, the College of Medicine introduced a new internal medicine residency program that will give graduates the opportunity to care for hospitalized veterans.

With more than 21 million veterans in the United States, and 1.2 million in Florida alone, students can now learn how to properly administer care to them.

Michael Strickler, the public information officer for the VA center, projects that it will expand its residency programs in the future to psychology, psychiatry, pharmacy and surgery.

This year, there are 32 residents at the center, and it's expected to double in the next year.

"The idea is to try to generate some opportunities for the residents in this area who are interested in internal medicine," Strickler said. "One thing that we have more than anybody else is a collection of different veteran patients in different demographical columns — anywhere from young vets to old vets, men and women."

The center hopes to collaborate as broadly as possible to generate innovations.

Strickler calls the impact of the collaboration between the center and the College of Medicine as one of access and opportunity.

Along with a new women's health clinic in the center, the VA is building a national simulation center on campus.

Orlando is one of the biggest medical and military simulation environments in the nation, Strickler said.

"We have mannequins that have a heartbeat, they have respiration, they sweat, they speak, they move," he said. "The simulation program will allow you as a clinician to make adjustments, administer medication and different therapies and then you receive immediate feedback on how that patient's doing."

Sarubbi said this aligns with UCF's goal to teach its medical students about simulation technology and practices, making them more noticeable to employers.

Along with the VA center, Lake Nona Medical City also includes the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Nemours Children's Hospital, a University of Florida Research and Academic Center and Valencia College at Lake Nona.

"If you come and spend three years doing your residency with the VA, you've learned our system, you have a better idea of our patient and our patient's needs," Strickler said. "That makes you very valuable to us."

The center is currently looking to hire a number of positions, including physicians and nurses. Strickler said the VA is ready, willing and able to hire UCF College of Medicine graduates.

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Amelia Truong is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @Ameliatruong or email her at AmyT@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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