“Pure joy” were the words Stephanie Harrist’s mom, Brenda Bartkowiak, used to describe their reunion at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center Community Living Center (CLC) last month. The CLC began coordinating in-person family visitations for the first time since emplacing pandemic restrictions on March 17, 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, VA implemented strict infection control guidelines and restricted all visitors to CLCs, except in certain compassionate care situations. This was an essential step to protect our most vulnerable Veterans with COVID-19 cases on the rise, testing supplies limited, and no vaccine initially available.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to touch my daughter in 16 months,” Bartkowiak said. “It’s really good to be with her again.”

Tents in an outdoor setting to allow for privacy and social distancing.

Safe Care VA was the top priority.

As soon as the restrictions were in place, the CLC scrambled to keep Veterans in touch with their loved ones. In April 2020, virtual visits through Zoom and Microsoft Teams were made available to all Veterans and families. Veterans were provided tablets so they could meet virtually with their families and friends.

On July 28, 2020, the CLC hosted a parade where family members decorated their cars with heartfelt messages and proceeded past their Veterans as they looked on from the sidewalks.

On May 5 this year, Veterans were able to see their family members and speak with them through the windows in the lobby at the CLC.

“We’ve never been out of contact with our Stephanie,” said Doug Dunckel, Harrist’s father. “Thankfully we’ve been able to visit her through video chat and pray with her during communion services. Her sister and brother have been able to talk with Stephanie on a regular basis and that’s been a godsend. We were also able to see her through the glass, but It’s not the same as holding her hand.”

There were no positive COVID tests of CLC staff or residents in 14 days. And since the county reported positive cases below 10%, the CLC was able to open visitation to all family members and designated caregivers on an appointment-only basis. Staff set up tents over tables in an outdoor setting to allow for privacy and social distancing.

With the administration of the COVID-19 vaccines, declining COVID-19 rates in the community, and available testing, we are now happy to begin visitations under these new guidelines.

“We’re here with Stephanie and that’s all that matters.”

Harrist was assigned to a MASH unit in Kuwait during Desert Storm. She is a long-term resident of the CLC and her parents rely on visits like this.

“We were visiting her every week for the past 13 years. When the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure what we would do,” said Bartkowiak. “We’re here with Stephanie now, and that’s all that matters.”


Adam V. Swager is a public affairs specialist at the Battle Creek, MI, VAMC.

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