By Connie Foster
Having grown up in the Vietnam era, I always had mixed emotions about that conflict. Then later, one of my older sisters married a Vietnam veteran who suffered flashbacks from the war and committed suicide, leaving behind three young boys. In nursing school, I spent time at a VA center during my psychiatric rotation. I saw the struggles those men went through but didn’t know what to do to thank them for their service. Through the years, however, I met many men who served in the armed forces.
In November 2011, my hospital started an initiative to honor those patients. The We Honor Veterans program through the NHPCO provided the inspiration for our ongoing recognition program and our hospital-wide and community education programs. Some statistics regarding our veterans:
- One in every four deaths is a veteran, as of 2012.
- Approximately half of veterans receive healthcare in the community, not through the VA system.
- We are currently caring for three war eras of veterans who are approaching end of life: WWII, Korea and Vietnam. This does not account for our current service men and women and the veterans of more recent conflicts. Each has a different experience and a different story that impacts quality of life and end of life.
- An estimated 390 Vietnam veterans die each day.
- 250,000 of 697,000 1991 Gulf War veterans have chronic, multisystem illness, as of 2019.
Our hospital recognition program officially started on Veterans Day 2011. Two of our veteran patients that were in our hospital that day were thanked for their service to our country. One of our employees, who himself is a veteran, presented the patients with a flag pin and thanked them on behalf of our country and our hospital. We now routinely thank our veteran patients with a flag-pinning ceremony, and patients and their families have expressed gratitude for this program. Every effort is made to have one of our veteran employees present the flag pin to the patient. Our flag pins are donated by our local American Legion posts.
Initially we had difficulty identifying our patients who served in the armed forces, but we now have a question about veteran status as part of our registration process. The recognition program soon spread to our sister hospitals. In the Great Lakes Region of Bon Secours Mercy Health (BSMH), specifically in the Toledo rural area, our chaplains now daily receive a report of patients in the hospital who are also veterans. Our social workers routinely ask patients about their VA status. Once identified, the chaplain contacts a hospital employee who also served in the armed forces. That employee and other available staff present the flag pin to the patient or family recognizing their service.
If a veteran dies in our hospital, we perform a flag ceremony in their honor. (We also perform the ceremony for patients who served in police or fire departments or were elected officials.) Typically, a chaplain is attending to the family during this time. The chaplain contacts two employees who are also veterans to assist with the flag ceremony. After the patient is placed on the funeral cart and the body is secured, they drape an American flag over the cart. Then all available hospital employees line the hallway to honor the patient and flag. The hospital employee veterans accompany the body to the hearse with the funeral home representative and the family, passing the employees who are lining the hallways. The flag is then refolded after the patient leaves the hospital and stored in the chaplain’s office.
Recently, we have been able to provide red, white, and blue blankets to our veteran patients who are in hospice or going home with hospice. The blankets are made and donated by various volunteers. The family may place the blanket on the patient.
Our veteran employees are also recognized for their service to our country. Yearly since 2012, BSMH Willard Hospital has presented a different flag pin with a certificate/card to our employees to thank them for their service. This past year our BSMH Toledo-area facilities honored all employees who are also veterans with a flag pin.
By recognizing the unique needs of our veterans, we can learn how to accompany and guide them and their families through their life stories. Each veteran has his or her own unique story. Some were never thanked for their service, but it’s never too late.
Connie Foster, RN, CHPN, is palliative care coordinator at Bon Secours Mercy Health Tiffin and Willard in Ohio.