Before the Hero’s Welcome volunteers meet with admitted Veterans at the Tucson VA Medical Center they go to the patient cafeteria and grab a cup of coffee to go over their day’s objectives and remind themselves why they are here.
Then, when satisfied with their plan, the volunteers set out to meet with the newly-admitted patients. Dick Horton, a Hero’s Welcome volunteer, walks into a hospital room. The man in the bed is Charles Goldberg; an Air Force Veteran with his wife by his side.
Horton starts the conversation, “I’m a Vet, just like you are.”
Veterans serving Veterans is the driving force behind the Hero’s Welcome program. The program helps newly-admitted Veterans feel welcome in the hospital and ensures they know what resources are available to them during their stay. It is the first Veteran-led volunteer program at the Tucson VA, tracing its roots back a couple of years.
In the photo above, Horton visits a Veteran during his daily rounds. Photo by Nicole Thurston
Dick Nelson, a Vietnam Veteran and Hero’s Welcome volunteer, recalls early on visiting inpatients to inquire about their dietary preferences. He noticed that hospitalized Veterans shared their military experiences with him and had questions about VA resources and services. Soon after, thanks to the hard work of staff members and volunteers, an all-volunteer team of Veterans was created to welcome admitted patients daily. Thus, the Hero’s Welcome program was born.
Getting the best care possible
“I do this because I developed a real affection for my buddies in the field; that’s why I want to do something to give back to fellow Veterans as much as I can,” said Nelson.
While conducting their visits, Hero’s Welcome volunteers not only discuss military experiences and provide information about VA resources; they also try to ensure Veterans are getting the best care possible.
“We find out how they’re doing on a scale from one to 10… if it goes below an eight we’re going to inquire why, and then we’re going to resolve that issue right away,” said Brad Lang, Hero’s Welcome team leader and volunteer.
For Lang, he and his fellow volunteers are operating on the frontlines making sure the patient’s needs are met. Lang says the program is about being selfless and looking out for his fellow Veteran.
“We act as liaisons with the patient advocate office… seeing the Veterans on the hospital bed, making sure that they get the quality care that they deserve,” Lang said.
All the Hero’s Welcome volunteers are Veterans, which gives the program a unique edge.
“We won’t accept any non-Veteran volunteers in our program,” said Hal Wilson, Hero’s Welcome Assistant Team Leader and volunteer. “The only reason is because we believe, whole-heartedly, that a Vet will talk to another Vet and say things that he won’t say to a civilian.”
That idea is the crux behind the Hero’s Welcome Program. Wilson emphasizes the program is designed and centered on serving the Veteran.
“When (we) interview a perspective volunteer we emphasize our program is for the guy in the bed,” Wilson said.
Hero’s Welcome volunteers work directly with the nurses responsible for overseeing patient care.
“We see ourselves as not only an advocate for the patient, but an arm of the nurse and the nurse manager in those units. If there’s anything we can do to relieve the nurses… we do that,” Wilson said.
If a Veteran needs something, they get it
Donald Crowley II, a registered nurse at the Tucson VA, said the Hero’s Welcome program and Tucson’s nursing corps make a good partnership. “It’s such a seamless process with how they help,” he said. “They go the extra mile to make the Veterans feel at home. If someone needs hearing aids, a back scratcher, a book, a blanket; they get it. A lot of the times I don’t even know it until the patient says that they were grateful for the service.”
“Sometimes they have families who are further away and don’t have a chance to come visit them,” said Trysha Hicks, a nursing student at the Tucson VA. “I’ve seen a lot of happiness brought into their lives with just a simple book or maybe they forgot to bring something and the Hero’s Welcome can provide that for them.”
Hero’s Welcome volunteer James Vah, an Army Veteran who served between 1969 and 1970, said there is a sense of camaraderie between Veterans, who feel almost like brothers even if they’ve never met before.
“It gives you a feeling of relaxation that you’re talking to somebody that has gone through stuff, been through stuff; it helps ease your mind,” he said. “You know that he went through basic training; you know that he had a tough drill sergeant; you know that he got yelled at… you know automatically what he did, and he knows what you did.”
At the end of a visit, Hero’s Welcome volunteers always thank the Veteran for their service.
When Horton feels his work is done he will leave the room but before doing so he will say his thanks.
“I am not allowed to shake your hand,” he says to the patient. “But what I will do is salute you, and thank you for your service.”
Horton salutes his fellow Veteran and leaves the room, off to visit another patient.
Author: Victor Herrera, Public Affairs Intern, Southern Arizona VA Health Care System