Taking care of our Heroes – The challenges and the love

By February 6, 2016Uncategorized

I am a proud and grateful VA Nurse.  Don’t laugh.  The VA is literally the hardest job I have ever loved.  I feel as though I am marked as soon as I tell people where I work. The only thing anyone ever hears about are the scandals, the mistakes, and the wait times. The other 99.9% of VA patients are effectively silenced, because stories about good care, lovingly delivered are not exciting.

Except maybe to us….Nurses understand this.

When the Phoenix VA scandal broke, the first thing that was said was how dozens or hundreds of vets died waiting for care.   Naturally, this was not QUITE the case. There was a LOT of truth, and some corrupt people, but there are also a lot of unreasonable expectations that the VA is expected to meet, and the private sector does not have to worry about.  

The world never sees a whole lot about care that our heroes get with the VA.  Can I tell you about some of it?

  • When you repeatedly no-show or cancel your own extremely necessary medical appointments with the VA, we keep calling and begging that you show up.  The private sector would simply cross you off the list.
  • We arrange transportation, overnight hotel stays, and intervention from your primary care or mental health team to talk you into doing what will keep you healthy. We even pay you to drive yourself to appointments if you are travel-eligible. The sheer numbers of noncompliant patients in the VA system are astonishing. Part of this is because some of these poor guys have psychiatric and/or TBI issues.  This delays their care.
  • The Veteran’s Choice program is a great option for those who wish to seek care outside of the VA system.  There is just one problem with that.  Most of these guys want to come to the VA.  We understand them.  We love them.  We have their medical history dating back to the flood.  When we get the opportunity, we spoil them.  All is not what it might seem like on Fox News.
  • The wait times are not as bad as it might seem. (Phoenix is a huge exception here) Have you ever tried to get into a new primary care physician? It can take 3-4 months if you are trying to get into a specific practice.  We now have an average of 42 days, which we are trying to get under 30 days.
  • Many of our patients are transient and do not have working phone numbers or permanent addresses.  We call many times, and send many letters before we give up on anyone.  And the time spent counts toward our wait times. It is not chalked up to patient noncompliance, or the patient failing to update their address or phone numbers with us.
  • It can take three hours to schedule a patient for a procedure in the environment where I work.  It depends on how complex the patient is, what pre-op testing and teaching is required, and a ton of other factors.  And with some frequency, these patients cancel their procedures multiple times at the last minute.  This wastes valuable lab time, and leaves specialized physicians sitting idle when they want to be taking care of vets.  Make no mistake.  VA Doctors do NOT make a ton of money.  They care, which is part of their compensation.

Before I was a VA Nurse, I was a VA Patient’s family member.  My Father-in-Law was a decorated Vietnam Vet.  Purple Heart, Bronze Star, etc.

He was also a non-compliant drug and alcohol addict with horrible PTSD.  He refused treatment for all of these things for literally decades.  When we finally got him to be (somewhat) compliant with his medications and treatment, it was because a VA counselor spent literally hours on several days talking to him about why he felt the way he did.

He was sent to a specialized inpatient PTSD program for a couple of months. He went to ‘group’ (therapy) every week with the most compassionate physician I have ever met.  He was at Dad’s funeral when he died of cancer in 2012.  He was sent to arguably the best hospital in our region for his lobectomy when his lung cancer was diagnosed.  It didn’t cost him a single dime.  His hospice care was wonderful, also paid for by the VA.  He died with dignity.

His care was way more comprehensive than any I have ever received or witnessed. He asked me to go to work at the VA multiple times, because he knew I would love it and take good care of the vets. So I did, after he died. I would like to think he is proud of me.

A common theme with my patients is a sentiment of bewilderment when they hear about how terrible the VA is on the TV news.  They usually tell me they have never had anything but terrific care at the VA.  I always say the same thing.  “Happy customers do not call news channels.” We laugh about it a bit. 🙂

There is something I hear over the loudspeaker at work at varying intervals…. I will get some of the words wrong, but you will get the idea.

“At the VA Medical Center in St Louis we honor our veterans in death and in life. A hero is making his final journey, draped in the flag of our nation. We ask that all present and former military members render a salute when he passes, and that civilians place their hand over their heart”

I am humbled to be with these guys when they come in for care, when I am giving them directions to a clinic, when I start their IV, and hold their hand when they are scared. I can rarely see the Veteran passing on the flag-draped stretcher because of the tears stinging my eyes and clouding my vision.

But my vision for our Mission is never clouded.

To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans

You bet, guys.  I will be here.  










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Author Janie Garner

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Teia says:

    I keep Appling top the VA here in MN. Never get a reponse. Guess I’ll keep trying! Working at the VA hospice is my dream job!

  • Alison says:

    Thanks, Janie. I’m a vet and a nurse and have had good care and long waits. There is good and bad to everything. I love my VA hospital Thanks for taking care of us!

  • Shannon says:

    Thank you Janie! I have been a VA nurse for 14 years and love it. I love our patient population and the challenges they present. My family has generations of veterans who all have received their care. The VA has its faults like any other hospital. However the private sector does not have their wait times plastered all over national news or adverse events blown up in the media. Thanks for speaking up.

  • Jen says:

    I’m the wife of a combat veteran. I had wanted to be a nurse with the VA when I first started nursing school and my husband was fresh out of his 11 year Army career. We have had an awful experience of trying to get him the help he needs. He feels abandoned and forgotten. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I know it’s not the fault of the nurses. I still think about it, as this is a population that I care passionately about, but we’ve been so disappointed after his years of sacrifice and service. Thank you for serving this population, Janie. The nurses have never been our issue.

  • Lisa says:

    This information is so important for everyone and I’m grateful you were able to so with facts and passion. If you ever decide to continue your education this topic would make an important and needed dissertation topic.

  • Adrienne says:

    Would love to work at the VA. I have a special place in my heart for Vets. I come from a long line of veterans including my grandfather, who was such an amazing person. My husband is also a Vet. My goal in my nursing career is to become a DNP in mental health; specializing in PTSD and the mental aftermath of war. We have a huge shortage of mental health facilities for vets in my area, and I would love to give back.

  • Forrest says:

    True words Janie. So proud to call you a fellow nurse. I agree with you about the VA healthcare system, as a veteran and the son of a veteran, as well a nurse in long term care who deals with the VA…

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