Voices from the front lines: Standing with our veterans 

Editor’s note: These testimonies were submitted by Steven James Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services, in honor of Vet...

Editor’s note: These testimonies were submitted by Steven James Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services, in honor of Veterans Day on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Joan Miller, RN, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

I do not need a calendar to tell me it is Veterans Day. I am a full-time registered nurse at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Every day I go to work it is Veterans Day. It is my honor to serve and care for the men and women who have fought for and defended our country. But I also worry for their future. 

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Soldiers’ Home like a high-speed train barreling toward veterans and the staff dedicated to their care. We made it through the crisis, but it was not easy, and it has had lasting effects on caregivers, veterans and their families. As health care professionals, we know and expect that during the course of our service, providing care with honor and dignity, we will experience the deaths of our veterans. We never anticipated or prepared for what happened this spring, with so many veterans dying at once.

We have always felt like the veterans we care for are our family. Amid the devastation and isolation of the COVID-19 surge,  we were suddenly the only family the veterans had close to them. It was not easy going in to work every day. I was scared that I would somehow bring the virus home to my family. I was so worried that I separated from my family. Yet I went to work every day, and so did every other staff member and caregiver, because we love and care for our veterans. 

So where do we go from here? What does the future of health care for our nation’s heroes look like? And, specifically, what can we do at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke? Personally, I would like to see the Soldiers’ Home look like a home again. A place where veterans can be part of a community that also features the most modern, safest and effective services and resources our country has to offer. I would like veterans to have a place where they can live with dignity. 

Steve Connor, Northampton Veteran’s Agent

I am a veteran service officer, or VSO, right here in Hampshire County, and I have been for almost 17 years. My job is to ensure the health and well-being of every veteran in my communities and their dependents.

Over these many years, I have assisted scores of family members with getting their loved one a place in the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. I even helped my own brother move to their hospice ward in 2013. The staff was fabulous to him and my sister-in-law, and he was treated with the honor and dignity he so desired. However, many of my fellow VSOs from our region were hearing from family and staff that they had real concerns about the care at the home. We took it upon ourselves to investigate, and after considerable discussion, I expressed our concerns and gave a written report to our then state Rep. Peter Kocot. The issues then are the issues now: inadequate staffing levels, overcrowded space and not enough resources for staff. 

Rep. Kocot made some inquiries and told me he would look further into it after the holidays of 2017. Unfortunately, we lost Peter shortly afterward. Thankfully, our region has legislators willing to take interest in the Soldiers’ Home.

Last year during the week of Veterans Day, state Sen. Jo Comerford and I attended an afternoon coffee with several veterans from her district.  The senator understood my concerns, and we were discussing steps to go forward to improve conditions for both veterans and the staff. Then COVID-19 hit, and the rest is history – the loss of 76 veterans under the state’s care at the home. Two of those 76 veterans were the veterans who sat with us at the meeting last year.

The hurt that comes with knowing you assisted a veteran who ultimately was part of that situation, one of the worse outbreaks of COVID-19 in any facility in our nation, and having them pass in such a tragic way has been felt by me and my staff and by the many other VSOs in our area. Today, I still have veterans and their families contacting me to help them with the admissions process for placement at the home. Even during a pandemic, the families tell us that regardless of the news and what has happened, the veterans still want to go to the home to live out their last years because they want to be with their fellow veterans.

It’s now up to all of us to make sure they live there with the greatest honor and dignity. Write or call your local legislators and tell them to do everything possible to make sure veterans receive the best care and that our state puts the energy and resources necessary into the home to prevent a tragedy like what occurred this year from ever happening again.

That is the best way that you, too, can honor Veterans Day, every day.

Andrea Fox, RN, MNA Labor Rep at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

I have been a registered nurse for more than 30 years and have been the associate director in the Division of Labor Action representing the nurses and health care professionals at the Soldiers Home prior to and during the COVID-19 outbreak. During that time, the MNA leadership participated in many meetings to attempt to educate and work toward keeping the veterans safe. Sadly, too many veterans and staff were affected by the virus.

Restorative justice to honor the veterans who lost their lives and the staff who suffered physically and emotionally means dedicating ourselves to two essential tasks: reform to ensure that this kind of tragedy could never happen again, and improvements to positively transform patient care and working conditions.

Health care providers tend to be compassionate people with a strong moral compass. They are there to help patients and “do no harm.” When in situations that insult their personal moral conscience, they can suffer from moral injury. Like PTSD, it can be treated; untreated can be associated with higher rates of self-injurious behavior and suicidal ideation. Support, compassion and extra care need be extended to the veterans, their families and the staff who suffer from moral injury.

The future of the Soldiers’ Home must include improvements to the physical building as well as workplace culture. To be successful, the home must invest in assessing the organizational climate and the culture of the Soldiers’ Home, with the goal of transforming the pervasive culture of fear into one that boosts employee morale and rebuilds trusting collaborative relationships among staff and leadership.

Providing staff with the tools they need going forward affords them the best ways to continue caring for our veterans with safety, dignity, respect and honor.

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Newsrust: Voices from the front lines: Standing with our veterans 
Voices from the front lines: Standing with our veterans 
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