Auburn University senior nursing student Maria May was at the hospital when she met a man in his late 60s waiting to undergo tests for potential cardiac issues.
With only a brief medical history in his chart, May thought it would be beneficial to ask some questions. The resulting conversation confirmed to her the importance of a recent trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland:
"While waiting for the test, we began to talk about his past professions. When he mentioned he had been in the U.S. Army, I asked when he was in and if he enjoyed it. He quickly said no and explained he had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. I thanked him for his service and told him that I plan to go into the U.S. Navy as a nurse after college. I also told him about my Project SERVE experience.
"When I told him about going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial his eyes began to water. He started to describe Vietnam and tell me about the different places he had been. I could tell the experiences 46 years ago were still painfully fresh in his mind.
"Just before he had to go in for his test I stated that the whole purpose of my trip to Walter Reed was to try to understand a little bit about caring for veterans so that when we have them as patients we can give them the best possible care that they rightfully deserve. He thanked me and stated that it was wonderful we had that program."
Project SERVE (Student's Education Related to the Veteran Experience) is a joint program between the Auburn University and Auburn University Montgomery Schools of Nursing and Walter Reed.
As the number of U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan is being reduced, nursing faculty from both campuses saw a need to ensure future nurses are prepared to care for the thousands of veterans returning home and seeking health care in non-military facilities across the country.
This spring, 17 students and six faculty members spent a week in Bethesda, focusing on the different points of care from injury to recovery, rotating through the ICU, surgical inpatient unit, inpatient and outpatient physical therapy, inpatient and outpatient mental health, and the Warrior Transition units on the 68-acre medical base.
For students like Auburn senior Emily Dawson, it was an experience like no other.
"It enhanced my nursing education in a way that I didn't know was possible," she said. "It set a high standard for health care and showed me the best examples of teamwork and interdisciplinary care I have ever seen. I could only hope to become a part of such an amazing team in my own career."
For U.S. Air Force Reservist Craig Schadewald, the trip reinforced his desire to return to active duty after he graduates from AUM. Schadewald had served as a flight medic – four deployments in 10 years – treating wounded military during transport from deployed locations to hospitals, but said he had never seen the continuity of care they receive at Walter Reed.
"It's really nice to see the wounded warriors are getting the care that they deserve," he said.
U.S. Navy Capt. Michele Kane, a 1992 AUM nursing alumna, was instrumental in creating the collaboration with her former Walter Reed colleague David Crumbley. A retired Navy commander, Crumbley became an assistant clinical professor at Auburn and joined forces with Associate Professor Libba McMillan, whose husband is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, and AUM Associate Professor Marilyn Rhodes, a retired colonel and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
Kane said the agreement with the Auburn Schools of Nursing is the first Department of Defense enterprise to meet the call to action of First Lady Michelle Obama's Joining Forces Initiative, which is meant to engage society to support military members and their families. Crumbley added that Auburn and AUM were the first nursing schools to be granted this type of experience at Bethesda.
"The normally sealed door to the inside of military health care was unlocked to us and we were able to witness and participate in the care of U.S. service men and women that most people never see and no nursing student has seen before us," said AUM senior Ashley Charlton. "It was very humbling, to say the least."
McMillan said she viewed the experience as a chance to teach beyond the classroom.
"There's only so much you can teach from a textbook," she said. "Until you see a worried mother or a young man unable to speak because of a traumatic brain injury, you don’t understand pride, commitment and anguish. You can't teach that."
Rhodes said she was overwhelmed by the willingness of the staff to share their knowledge and explain the continuity of care they offer.
"The people at Walter Reed welcomed us and appreciated our promise to care for their patients when they come to us," said Rhodes.
A Navy Nurse Corps Officer talks to Auburn and AUM nursing students and faculty about his role in the Military Advanced Training Center at Walter Reed. Staff found that the wounded are more willing to open up to a mental health provider in the MATC rather than an office.
Crumbley added that the patients appreciated educating students in this manner.
"They realized the students weren't just there to hear their story, but rather to take something back," he said. "Many of these guys will be discharged from the military and end up seeking treatment outside of the VA system. That's why it's so important for Walter Reed nurses to pass on their knowledge to community nurses."
Auburn senior Beth Baker said she understood the benefit of learning how Walter Reed provides high-quality care to its military patients because she can apply the same protocol to civilian patients with similar injuries or diagnoses, such as losing a limb as a complication of diabetes or suffering a traumatic brain injury as the result of a motor vehicle accident.
Looking back on the conversation May had with the patient who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran, she said she "learned how important it is to talk to patients, even if there is a thorough account in their chart. Listening and comforting are two of the most important skills to always practice. And all those classes I took before nursing school, like history, are actually useful in connecting with patients. The statements that my patient made regarding veterans' health care will always stick in my mind. I hope in the future, with programs like Project SERVE, all nurses are able to confidently talk with veteran patients to give them the best possible holistic care that they honorably deserve."
The next joint venture, Project INNOVATE, will be to create a model with Walter Reed to teach care for veterans. It will also include looking for ways to apply the model into a community setting to affect health care practice in Alabama.
"It's a win-win for us," said Crumbley. "We learn how to take care of the military, and we can take care of our community better."
— By Amy Weaver, Office of Communications and Marketing