Medical personnel honored to serve veteransWASHINGTON — Diabetes. Alzheimer’s disease. Knee problems, lung problems and poor vision to boot.
WASHINGTON — Diabetes. Alzheimer’s disease. Knee problems, lung problems and poor vision to boot.
For many chronically ill veterans, the good health and mobility they enjoyed in their military days is long since past.
And as the Greatest Generation ages into their 90s, the need to get them to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Veteran’s Memorial is more urgent than ever.
That’s where medical personnel come in.
A 12-person medical team — among them doctors, nurses, first responders, even physical therapists — accompanied the men on their journey, tasked with keeping them safe at every turn.
“We have to keep our eyes and ears open because they don’t complain,” said Lois Hamilton, a registered nurse from Luverne. “We’ve had people take nitro (nitroglycerin, used to dilate blood vessels in people with heart conditions) and not even tell us.”
Most of the 108 veterans aboard the flight were using some form of medication, but about 15 had serious medical problems that required monitoring.
“A lot of what we do is checking the bus, checking the bathrooms to make sure they are OK,” explained Suzie Bakken, a nurse practitioner from Garretson, S.D.
The medical staff must also carry any necessary equipment — inhalers, oxygen tanks and blood sugar monitors to name a few — and help load disabled veterans on and off the bus.
Honor Flight organizers arranged for 50 wheelchairs to travel to Washington with the veterans. While only a handful are wheelchair-bound, several men used canes or walkers, or used wheelchairs when fatigue set in.
According to the national Honor Flight website, about 30 percent of all veterans who participate are in wheelchairs, and motor coaches used to transport the men around the nation’s capital are equipped with wheelchair lifts.
Bakken said last weekend’s flight included more chronically ill veterans and those who had mobility problems than the first flight, but the medical staff considers it an honor to help the men enjoy their experience.
“The goal is for us as medical personnel to serve our veterans on this trip, because they, too, decided our fate,” Hamilton said. “As nurses, we’re caring for people anyway; we might as well do it for people like this. They didn’t complain when it was 30 below in the foxholes.”
Bakken has cared for veterans on two flights, and said family members rarely oppose veterans’ decision to make the trip, even if they are terminally or chronically ill. National guidelines state terminally ill veterans are to be given top priority.
“We don’t have many families trying to have us talk them out of it,” she said. “Like I tell the veterans, they’re big boys; they can do what they want.”
Harold Hurley, an Army TEC-5 from Windom, has spent the past several months battling cancer, but postponed his monthly treatments so he would feel well enough to make the trip.
“This is probably my last trip,” the 88-year-old said resolutely. “I talked the doctor out of giving me a shot in September so I could go.”
Hamilton related a story of a terminally ill veteran who died shortly after his trip.
“That was told to me by a nurse on a South Dakota Honor Flight,” she said. “It was somebody that lost her husband who was terminally ill a few days after the flight. He was so happy when he returned, he was just so content. She felt that he really held on for that flight.”