Local VA social worker deployed to New Jersey to help in COVID-19 response

6 min read644 views and 97 shares Posted July 21, 2020

A World War II veteran, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is quarantined at a state veterans home in northern New Jersey, hadn’t seen or spoken to his wife — who has dementia and is sheltering at a separate facility — for quite some time.

A Lebanon County woman, who was deployed to the veterans home to provide aid to the staff and residents there, was able to bring them together through remote technology.

“It was beautiful,” Teresa Stump-Klinger, a licensed clinical social worker at the Lebanon VA Medical Center, recalled. “They kept saying how much they loved each other, how much they missed each other.”

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“He cried,” she added. “It was a very emotional moment, to see these two who had never been separated before. Now because of the coronavirus they’ve been separated, but we were able to use technology to bring them together. I felt blessed and honored to be a part of that moment.”

Stump-Klinger, a lifelong Lebanon County resident and graduate of Cedar Crest High School, was deployed with other Lebanon VA personnel to medical facilities needing help with their coronavirus response efforts. She spent four weeks at the New Jersey site, helping COVID-positive patients there connect with their families.

She stressed the importance of contact, even when the situation keeps people apart.

“It’s very important,” Stump-Klinger said. “As humans, we are social creatures, and having those connections is crucial for these residents to manage through these very tough times.”

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Her deployment was through Fourth Mission, a program initiated by the Veterans Administration to provide assistance as needed during times of national crisis.

According to Angela King-Sweigart, public affairs specialist for the Lebanon VA Medical Center, “approximately 20 staff members from here” were deployed to locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“Deployments are for about 14 days, but staff members may stay for multiple 14-day periods, situation dependent,” King-Sweigart explained in an email. “In general, the type of staff depends on the request of the facility, but it’s mostly clinical staff like nurses and some administrative.”

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The people who were deployed from the Lebanon VA “all had different experiences,” she added, “but they were tied together with a sense of duty to help their fellow citizens.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Fourth Mission assistance has been provided nationwide to 836 VA medical centers, 428 state veterans homes, 697 community nursing homes and 139 Indian Health Service and Navajo Nation sites since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“Looking ahead,” King-Sweigart said, “we can’t speculate on future events, but we will continue to maintain a qualified pool of personnel that are ready to deploy should the need arise.”

First deployment

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Stump-Klinger, 47, said this was her first Fourth Mission deployment, but she would not hesitate to accept another deployment, if called upon again.

She has worked nearly 12 years at the Lebanon VA. As a caregiver support coordinator, she helps veterans and their families navigate the VA system, providing them with education about programs, resources and services available to them, among other duties.

In Lebanon, Stump-Klinger works on an outpatient basis and hasn’t had many in-person dealings with COVID-19 patients. So, going into this situation was, she admitted, a little stressful.

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“I would say I had a little bit of anxiety, but once I arrived and I knew what we were doing, I had an inner peace and calmness,” she said. “That remained with me throughout my 30 days there.”

Her job there, as a licensed clinical social worker, was connecting residents remotely with family members so they could maintain contact despite the ban on visitations.

“I was working on a COVID-positive unit,” Stump-Klinger said. “The Lebanon VA supplied me with the PPE, my protective wear. An N95 mask, blue surgical mask, gloves, gowns, face shields — everything I needed to protect myself and the residents was provided before I left Lebanon.

“It was all new for me.”

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At first, she said, it was important to keep all the protocols in mind, but she quickly developed a routine for “donning and doffing” her protective wear.

“You have to get into a system of doing that, to be sure that you’re protecting everyone. Once you get used to it, it becomes second nature,” she said. “It does get warm wearing all of the protective wear. It is an adjustment to wearing two masks and a face shield. But it’s something you adjust to, because you know you have to take those precautions for everyone’s safety.”

Checking in

During her deployment to the northern New Jersey home from late April through May, Stump-Klinger said she worked long hours, six days per week.

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“I was assigned to one particular unit and became acquainted with the staff there. I learned about the residents and connected with their families,” she said. “Every day I would check in with the residents, encourage them to drink fluids, make sure they had breakfast.”

The bulk of her day, she said, was “just keeping in touch with the residents, encouraging them, engaging in conversation with them — anything that I could do to help to improve the lives of the residents … and keeping in touch with their families, giving them updates. I was like a lifeline to them, which the families were so very grateful for.”

Whenever possible, she arranged video chats so the patients could talk with family members.

The residents in her unit were not intubated,” Stump-Klinger noted. They were somewhat mobile, although they were restricted either to their rooms or just the hallway because of the quarantine.

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To take care of herself during her time in New Jersey, Stump-Klinger said she ate healthy meals and maintained daily self-care practices including “a gratitude journal, daily devotional, taking supplements and diffused essential oil that a friend made specifically for respiratory health. I’m blessed to have the most amazing and supportive co-workers! They sent me uplifting messages via texts and cards and checked in with me throughout my month detail.”

Coming home

Coming home from New Jersey “was bittersweet,” Stump-Klinger said.

“I was of course looking forward to coming home, to seeing my own family, friends and coworkers, but I did get attached to the residents and their families there,” she said. “I think about them all the time, I hope and pray they’re doing well. I would like to come back when the dust settles and meet everybody in person, to see the residents.”

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She laughed. “Of course, they have no idea what I look like. It would be nice to see everybody in a happier, healthier time.”

Some additional personnel from the Lebanon VA who were recently deployed also shared their thoughts on the mission. King-Sweigart provided some of their comments on the experience.

“I was excited to be able to go,” said RN Virginia Halty. “I felt like I was going to become a part of history by going to the front lines of the COVID-19 fight. I felt like I was going to fight a war for people’s lives. Once we arrived at the facility, we knew we were needed since large numbers of staff and residents were testing positive.”

RN Lisa McGowan wrote that, before going, she was “extremely fearful and nervous of the unknown and stepping out of my comfort zone. I was doubting my strength and almost let fear talk me out of the assignment. However, I kept feeling a pull at my heart to go and help. Now, I’m so grateful that I was able to silence that fear! … The reward of making a difference in the lives of so many far outweighs the little voice keeping you from doing it.”

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And RN Patricia Shepler said she started her deployment with “so much excitement for the unknown. I didn’t know what skills I might use but hoped that I would be useful.”

Shepler said she “had an extremely supportive network. I would not have been able to do the deployment without them. When I arrived for orientation and saw the magnitude of what we were dealing with, my thoughts were that I wasn’t ready to experience COVID-19.”

Lebanon VAMC director Robert W. Callahan Jr. praised the personnel for their service.

“The staff here has done a tremendous job during this challenging health care time,” he said in a statement. “We continue to provide safe and comprehensive health care to the Veterans of South Central Pennsylvania throughout the pandemic and our amazing staff have answered the nation’s call when assistance was needed elsewhere.”

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Chief communications officer Doug Etter echoed the sentiment in a telephone conversation Thursday.

“We just want to say how proud we are of Teresa and the other folks at the Lebanon VA who put their lives on hold to take care of their fellow citizens,” he said. “Like the members of the military, they put themselves in harm’s way and did what needed to be done.”

Overall, Stump-Klinger told LebTown, the experience “was a blessing. And the importance of the human connection is what really resonated with me.”

Volunteering to help, she added, was “my way of giving back to veterans who have served, and to the VA.”

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Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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