VA New England deploys staff to fight COVID-19 - VA New England Healthcare System
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VA New England Healthcare System

 

VA New England deploys staff to fight COVID-19

VA staff member boards military aircraft

Matt Hamel of VA Maine Healthcare System boards a Department of Defense aircraft in April for a flight from Portland, Maine, to New York City to begin a 14-day deployment in support of VA COVID-19 response operations. (Photo by Jonathan T. Barczyk, VA Maine Healthcare System). On front page photo, Jess Morrell, an Intensive Care Unit registered nurse from the Buffalo VA Medical Center in New York, left, and Margaret “Peg” Sullivan, a nurse practitioner from the White River Junction VA Healthcare System in Vermont, display their personal protective equipment before entering the ICU at the Manhattan VA campus in New York City. (Submitted photo)

By John Paradis, senior editor & writer, VA New England Healthcare System
Friday, May 29, 2020

VA New England Healthcare System staff continue to do their part in helping Veteran and civilian patients overcome COVID-19 by volunteering on the frontlines of care at community facilities in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Their efforts are part of VA’s national initiative to exercise its Fourth Mission of helping local communities and health care facilities when called upon in times of national emergency. 

States may request assistance from the federal government through their state Department of Health and Human Services Regional Emergency Coordinator as part of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center. Counties, cities, and other municipalities should route all requests for federal support through their respective states.

“We are in this fight for as long as our nation needs our help,” said Ryan Lilly, VA New England network director. “It is our obligation to help communities with the greatest need. Our highly trained clinical teams are saving lives, and it’s a testament to our volunteers that they are doing what they can with great empathy and humility to serve others – no matter if it’s here in New England or anywhere.”

Eleven certified nursing assistants and one licensed practical nurse were sent earlier this month to the state-run Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, R.I.  The volunteers are from VA medical centers in Providence, West Haven, Conn., and from the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. The support will continue through the month of June.

Another 13 staff members, including six registered nurses, five certified nursing assistants and two nurse practitioners, left this past week to care for civilians at five nursing homes in New Jersey that have been particularly hard hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. The FEMA Mission is expected to last 30 days, and VA New England is postured to send additional staff if needed after the 30-day mission concludes.

The volunteers are from VA medical centers in Maine and from VA hospitals in West Haven, Conn., and Manchester, N.H.

Where VA has the capacity and the resources, it will provide beds at VA medical centers and staff for community hospitals and nursing homes. VA’s decisions in supporting community health care are made after determining the actions would not negatively impact Veteran care.

“This is an opportunity for serving Veterans with top quality care – to help those who have served us,” said Ashley N. James, a certified nursing assistant at the West Haven VA Medical Center in Connecticut., who is on a two-week assignment to the Rhode Island State Veterans Home. 

Those who have recently returned from operations in New York City also mentioned the strong level of teamwork among all VA staff in caring for Veterans and non-Veteran patients alike.

“I saw a sign, ‘New York Tough,’” said Sandra Haithcock, an Air Force Veteran and a VA registered nurse from Hollis, N.H., noting that others across the country supported Boston after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.  This deployment, she said, was a way to pay it forward. 

“The VA nurses who I’ve been working with for the last two weeks are definitely New York tough," said Haithcock, who is assigned to the Fitchburg, Mass., community-based outpatient clinic for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.  “My heart goes out to all health care workers during this current situation and the families that are grieving for the people and Veterans that we have lost.”

Since early March, more than 240 VA New England staff members have deployed to assist in COVID-19 operations. Of the 240 members, more than 50 were sent to VA medical centers in New York City to augment VA staff in fighting COVID-19 with Veteran and civilian patients. Another 31 staff assisted with care for civilian patients with COVID-19 at private nursing homes and group homes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. More than 150 staff were also sent from various VA medical centers in New England to assist their sister facilities at VA sites of care in Bedford, Mass., and Boston. 

In addition to the deployments, VA medical centers in Bedford and Boston have taken in and cared for 46 Veterans from the Massachusetts state Veterans’ home in Chelsea.  VA Providence Healthcare System has also cared for seven patients from a nursing home in Rhode Island.  VA New England also delivered personal protective equipment to the Rhode Island State Veterans Home. In Connecticut, VA staff from the West Haven VA Medical Center supported a FEMA mission to help the homeless in the greater New Haven area.

“Each of our medical centers in New England has either deployed personnel to areas outside New England or sent staff within our own network to another VA facility in New England to support the COVID-19 surges we’ve seen,” said Lilly.  “The only way for our communities to get through this is for all of us to work together.  This has been a total team effort.”

Starting in April, a rotation of VA New England volunteers has left each week to continue to resupply VA’s New York City response with much needed clinical and operational support.  Several have stayed in the New York area, signing up for a second 14-day shift.

The deployment to New York from VA New England have included full-time VA New England doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, medical support assistants and housekeeping staff.  They were sent to support the VA New York/New Jersey Healthcare Network and have been attached to COVID-19 response units at the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan campuses. 

“They have left their friends and family here in New England to be on the frontline in support of colleagues in New York and to bolster our COVID-19 teams at our VA medical centers in Boston and Bedford,” said Ryan Lilly, the director of VA New England.

“Their dedication, courage, commitment and selflessness deserve our deepest admiration and gratitude.  Their service to our nation’s Veterans is saving lives and making a difference. We are proud of each of them.”

VA staff get checked in on the flightline

VA Nurse Practitioner Bridgett Fisher, Air Force Veteran from China, Maine, and VA Housekeeping Aide Matt Hamel, Army Veteran from Chelsea, Maine, prepare to board a military plane departing to New York in April. They provided care to civilian and Veteran patients at VA medical centers during the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 240 VA New England Healthcare System employees have voluntarily deployed for two-week stints during the pandemic. (Photo by Jonathan T. Barczyk, VA Maine Healthcare System)

'THE CALL OF DUTY'

The demand for care was so high in the New York area in early April that staff flew on a Department of Defense jet from the Portland International Jetport in Portland, Maine, to New York to start a 14-day deployment.

VA New England also reinforced its own response teams within its own network where demand in the Boston area still remains high.  In the past several weeks, teams of staff from VA New England’s medical centers in Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Central Western Massachusetts have been sent to VA Boston and to the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass. 

All are volunteers as part of the Veteran Health Administration’s Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System, or “DEMPS.” DEMPS is the VHA’s main deployment program for VA’s workforce to assist in a federal emergency or disaster zone under a Presidential Disaster Declaration.  

On the flight from Maine to New York were a nurse practitioner, an emergency department nurse, a medical support assistant and a housekeeping aide.  The four VA Maine employees boarded a jet with “United States of America” written across its body and an American flag affixed to its tail.  Before boarding, military personnel checked their temperatures.A fifth person, a primary care physician, arrived earlier.

One of the VA Maine staff members on board the military aircraft was Matt Hamel, a housekeeping aide who served eight years in the U.S. Army including a deployment to Iraq and two deployments to Afghanistan.  In the Army, he achieved the rank of sergeant.

He works in Environmental Management Services at the VA Maine Healthcare System in Augusta, Maine.  His duty in New York was cleaning and sanitizing the COVID-19 area at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx.

“For me, being a Veteran, it’s just really the call of duty,” said Hamel, who lives in Chelsea, Maine.  “It’s just another deployment for me.  There’s just something inside, a driving force, that says, ‘Go help.’”

Other volunteers from New England have also mentioned the importance of serving their country and answering the call for help.

Mark Zacheis, a registered nurse from the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, first went down to New York for a 14-day deployment, and is now assisting his colleagues with COVID-19 care at his assigned VA medical center in Bedford. 

He said his time in New York was intense but he is now using the knowledge he gained and his experience to help save lives in Massachusetts. The Army Veteran said operations in New York City were "24/7" with around-the-clock, 12-hour on-and-off shifts – “eat, shower, bed and then do it all over again.” Spirits, he said, were high, despite the intensity of the situation, he said.  He said it was especially uplifting to hear New Yorkers at 7 p.m. each evening cheering from windows and banging on pots and pans to show appreciation for all health care workers.

“We’re just doing our best,” he said during his first week in New York. “We’ve seen a lot of team work and there’s a lot of communication.”  He also noted “ a lot of generous things, too” with donated meals and other items that were provided to help them settle in.

Several of the VA New England staff also said the DEMPS mission was an opportunity to contribute their VA clinical expertise at a critical time in what has been described as the epicenter of the coronavirus – New York City.

“As I watch the news every day and see my health care colleagues across the country caring for these very sick patients, I know I have the clinical expertise to contribute to this unprecedented pandemic,” said Margaret “Peg” Sullivan, a nurse practitioner from the White River Junction VA Healthcare System in Vermont.  “Simply, this is what I do. Not volunteering was simply not an option.”

She said that every single person – New York and New England providers -- while she was in New York City were “working long, difficult hours.”  Both teams, she said, work side-by-side and took every precaution.

“It is an honor to serve during this pandemic,” she said.  “We are not heroes – we are simply committed clinicians doing what needs to be done, supporting our colleagues and our patients.”

Her colleague, Lisa D. Romero, the nurse manager of the Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Bangor, Maine, agreed.

“I see this opportunity as a chance to give back to those Veterans who fought for the freedoms that allow me to practice as a nurse today,” said Romero.

Volunteering to help fellow VA staff at the Brooklyn VA, is “being there for those who are in need,” said Carolyn L. Stevens, a VA licensed practical nurse from Lincoln, Maine, and U.S. Army Veteran in the Medical Corps.

“To serve our country is a privilege and to serve our Veterans is an honor,” said Tim Chilson, a Veteran of the U.S. Navy and of the Army National Guard and Air National Guard from Florence, Mass.  Chilson, a registered nurse with the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, has also deployed several times when on active-duty with several military deployments.

Several staff from Vermont and Maine are now helping in Boston and the nearby VA Bedford campus. The Bedford campus has cared for Veterans from the state Veterans’ home in Chelsea, a Boston suburb.

VA nurse packs her vehicle

Tina Kebalka, a registered nurse at VA New England’s White River Junction VA Healthcare System in Vermont, left her home in April and is now doing shifts at the VA Boston Healthcare System Intensive Care Unit to care for Veterans with COVID-19.

'I COULDN'T HELP BUT THINK OF ALL THE VETERANS I HAVE MET'

Tina Kebalka, a registered nurse at VA New England’s White River Junction VA Healthcare System in Vermont, left her home in April and worked shifts at the VA Boston Healthcare System Intensive Care Unit to care for Veterans with COVID-19. 

“As I was packing up my car this morning, I couldn't help but think of all the Veterans that I have met and taken care of in my ten years here at White River Junction VA,” Kebalka wrote in a blog she started to share her observations with friends and fellow VA employees.  “I was thinking about how they must have been feeling on the morning of their first deployment into World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, or leaving for basic training, or any other mission that required leaving their home…I am inspired, determined and excited to use all my skills that I have obtained in my lifetime to put towards this worldwide crisis.”

VA New England is one of 18 Veterans Integrated Service Networks within VHA.  The Manhattan VA campus and the Brooklyn VA Medical Center are in VISN 2, which comprises VA medical centers in New York and New Jersey. While supporting VISN 2, Lilly noted that his network has from the beginning of the pandemic kept a close eye on the spread of the virus into New England.  In answering the call to support operations in New York in April, VA New England had already built contingency plans for VA providers within New England to support the surge in the greater Boston area.

Support on COVID-19 units is still critical in VISN 1 and will be for the foreseeable future, he said. In messages to employees, he has encouraged VA New England staff to volunteer and he is proud that staff continue to step up to support VA's Fourth Mission.

“We will need nurses, physicians and other clinical staff and likely other professionals from a wide range of service lines – not just in other regions of our Nation but right here in New England, too,” Lilly said in early April. Lilly also appealed to employees to share the need for health care professionals with retired VA providers.   “They can make an immediate difference right now, today, close to home here in New England,” said Lilly. Any provider interested in returning to the Veterans Health Administration to assist VA medical centers in New England can send a note to human resources at VHAV01NewEnglandHiring@va.gov.

Speaking to VA New England staff, Lilly said their service was an inspiration to everyone.

“It takes a tremendous service, tremendous self-sacrifice and a willingness to serve your fellow man,” Lilly said. 

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