By Calvin Petersen
As BYU nursing students and faculty boarded the thousand-bed floating hospital moored in San Diego Bay, they realized their experience on the USNS Mercy was going to be more than just salutes and strict rules. Over the next two days, they had the unique opportunity to see firsthand how the military cares for its veterans.
A Rare Invitation
The San Diego trip resulted from a phone call Dr. Kent Blad received one sweltering morning last summer. Blad is a teaching professor and director of the veteran global health program at the BYU College of Nursing. When he answered the phone, Blad was surprised to hear the man on the other end introduce himself as lieutenant commander of the USNS Mercy, the hospital ship commissioned to serve the Pacific fleet. In addition to supporting military personnel with medical and surgical services, the Mercy undertakes humanitarian relief missions.
The Mercy’s lieutenant commander had read about BYU’s veteran global health course, co-taught by Blad and assistant teaching professor Stacie Hunsaker. He asked, “What can you tell me about what I just read?” “Funny you ask,” Blad replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call.”
By the end of the conversation, the lieutenant commander invited Blad, Hunsaker and their nursing students to San Diego to tour the Mercy and Naval Medical Center San Diego. Naval Medical Center San Diego is one of three major U.S. polytrauma centers that serve wounded warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That was the first time we’ve received an invitation,” explains Blad, “Usually we go out there and beg, ‘Can we please come do this?’ And he asked, ‘Can you please come here?’”
First-class Veteran Care
Although veteran global health students travel to Washington D.C. each spring to tour military medical facilities, Blad and Hunsaker felt the additional trip to San Diego would further enrich the students’ military cultural understanding. What the two professors didn’t know was how beneficial the experience would be for them as well.
“I’ve cared for veterans, but until being with them an entire day and spending that time, it was hard to understand the magnitude of the military in their lives,” says Hunsaker, “It’s a part of them, it’s not just a little job. They’re part of a military family, they have a set of beliefs and they love their country. And they really are willing to do whatever needs to be done to serve it. I don’t think I ever knew, to that extent, and hadn’t felt as grateful as I should to them.”
Jeana Escobar, one of the global health nursing students on the trip, learned that veteran care starts with the basics. “Every Navy sailor we met said the same two things: first, that every veteran has a story and you should take time to listen to it and, second, veterans don’t want your sympathy. Veterans want you to listen to them and tell them what they need to do to progress in the healing process.”
Students repeatedly saw nurses’ compassionate care for veterans as they toured Naval Medical Center San Diego’s facilities. A therapist working in the wounded warrior unit even confessed that, after starting work with “these brave men and women,” he would find himself crying randomly because of so much pent-up emotion.
The hospital’s courtyard, which was retrofitted with different terrains and a rock climbing wall for amputees to practice using new prosthetic limbs, impressed several students. “I was especially touched by what the physical therapist shared with us about the rock wall,” says nursing student JeriAnn Pack. “He described how, when someone is discouraged and thinks they will never progress, they can look up and see someone with an injury as bad or worse than their own climbing the wall. I can only imagine how inspiring that would be.”
“The students learned very quickly to appreciate these men and women and the part that nursing plays in helping these veterans recover,” Blad says of the nurses on the Mercy and in the naval hospital. “It truly is the Healer’s art in action. The love they have for their country and their patients is inspiring. We could all be more like that with any of our patients.”
An Unforgettable Experience
The Navy specifically planned the two-day trip in February to meet College of Nursing veteran global health objectives. In addition to touring the Mercy’s simulation center and hospital facilities for a day, students spent a day at the USS Midway Museum, as well as at Navy facilities on the base. “They really took their time and effort and energy, not only to make us feel welcome, but to help us in educating our students,” says Hunsaker.
To several students, the highlight of the trip was a panel where Navy officers and nurses shared their perspectives and personal stories of how they came to join the military. “It was really cool to see how different everyone was, and that they had all been brought to this common cause,” says nursing student Lauren Bretzing.
For students like Heather Wilkinson, who had previously interacted with elderly veterans, seeing young men and women recovering from current conflicts changed her perception of what a typical veteran looks like. Other students were impressed with the camaraderie and respect of military culture. Undoubtedly each student thought, as Breeze Hollingsworth did, “Maybe military service will be in my future and maybe not. But one thing is for sure: I want to better serve all veterans and active service men and women I come across.”
Because the San Diego trip was such an all-around success, the Navy has already invited Blad and Hunsaker’s class to come again next year. “We feel very strongly that our nurses need to learn how to care for veterans,” says Blad. “It doesn’t matter where they go or what hospital they serve in, as long as they’re within the United States, they’re going to be caring for veteran patients.”