VA staff around the country work tirelessly to keep inpatient Veterans safe, but finding ways for Veterans to see their families beyond video calls has been difficult.

At the VA Bedford Healthcare System, engineering service set up plexiglass barriers at doorways where patients inside could wheel up to see their family members outside. But hot weather, rain, and noise often made this an unpredictable option for those outside.

Then the idea emerged to convert two enclosed smoking area structures into visitation cottages.

“Visitors to VA facilities were limited, but we needed to balance and encourage the need for critical interactions to support the wellbeing of Veteran patients,” deputy nurse executive Kelley Saindon said. “We wanted to come up with an innovative approach that allowed our resident Veterans to engage with their loved ones face-to-face that adhered to physical distancing and minimized risk.”

Locked up on the last day smoking was allowed on campus, the structures needed serious cleaning to be appropriate for their new mission. A local cleaning and restoration service donated the service of six professionals, three trucks, and eight hours of detailed cleaning to transform the shelters using specially formulated chemicals to break down the cigarette residue, transforming the shelters to like-new condition.

Engineering service fitted and installed plexiglass walls and added new systems for climate control in accordance with VA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state guidelines. They installed intercoms so Veterans and families could easily hear each other. The community donated more than 120 plants and flowers to furnish the glass shelters with a cozy greenhouse atmosphere, eliminating any hint of their former use.

Families sign up for visits online

“We examined every protocol to ensure this visitation option balanced patient and family welfare with infection control risks and priorities,” Saindon said.

To reserve a time, families use an online sign up tool created by VA Bedford social workers to reserve a cottage and nursing staff to transport the Veterans. Users have warmly welcomed the visitation cottages. One WWII Veteran remarked how lovely it was to see her family again in such a special place.

Pictured above, Bob Lennon visits his friend, Veteran Norman Kitchell, in one of the newly renovated visitation cottages on the hospital grounds.

A U.S. flag provides the finishing touch for each visitation, an idea contributed by Navy Veteran and voluntary specialist Kevin Dougherty. “I wanted the families to see their Veteran proudly sitting in front of our flag,” he said. “These Veterans have fought through other battles and they’ll fight through this one too.”

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Alex Gagnon is a VA Bedford voluntary specialist, technical career field intern.

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