(Note: although this entry is a departure from my usual writings on fitness, food, and various other forms of fun, I wanted to document my experience while the details were fresh in my mind. Names of the veterans are invented, out of respect for their privacy.)
Tonight, as part of a community outreach program for the company I work for, I visited the VA Hospital here in Portland. It’s an experience I intend to repeat, and one I’ll never forget.
We met in the VA Hospital lobby, and the volunteer coordinator split us into a group of four and a group of three. Each group was led by an experienced volunteer who had made VA hospital visits before. When we reached the 9th floor of the hospital, we checked in at the nurses station and then parted ways to visit different wings of the floor.
Our first visit was to a soft-spoken lady in her 70’s that I’ll call “Helen”. Helen didn’t quite know what to make of our rag-tag gang of four but her boredom quickly overtook her reticence to let strangers into her room. We weren’t strangers for long, though. Over the course of 10-15 minutes, we learned that Helen was a widow, and had served in the Army (WAC) in her younger days. Her husband had served in the Navy. Helen, even in her fragile post-operative state, was not worried about herself nearly as much as she was concerned for the homeless people that she would “cheer up” during her frequent walks through Downtown Portland.
Helen said that she goes where nobody else wants to go. To the Occupy Portland camp. To the homeless camp at NW 4th and Burnside. Under bridges and freeway ramps goes Helen, spreading cheer wherever she can. She told us that while she has had many nicknames in her life (such as Foxy Lady) her current nickname, and the one she likes best, is “Lady in the Straw Hat”. She likes it because the homeless people call her that.
Although Helen was wearing nothing but a drab hospital gown when we visited her, in my mind I can see her walking around Portland in her bright pink straw hat, spreading hope to those who have very little.
Leela was an absolute joy, a chatterbox, and extremely excited to have random people showing up in her hospital room on a Wednesday night. Although Leela had aged prematurely beyond her 56 years (I learned she graduated from my high school – 11 years before me – I thought she was in her mid 60’s) her bright eyes, wide smile, and talkative manner revealed a woman who looked to be very pretty in her younger years.
Leela was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery, and was waiting to be transferred to the veteran’s rehab center in nearby Vancouver. She excitedly showed us gifts she had received from recent visitors – a teddy bear with war “injuries” from a man dressed in a kilt. A patriotic quilt handmade by a quilting circle in Tigard. A pink neck pillow, which at one time had a matching pink blanket that she gave away to a nurse’s aid because “she wasn’t a pink kind of girl”. A beautiful necklace made of glass beads that one of the nurse’s aids made for her.
We asked Leela what some of her favorite memories were about serving and she focused on taking advantage of military hops so she could travel. During her time in the Air Force, she spent time in Guam and Okinawa, which were favorites of hers. She said that once she recovered completely from her surgery, that she hoped to continue her love for adventure.
I hope you get to travel again, Leela, once those knees of yours heal up. Perhaps I’ll cross your path in an airport sometime and I can buy you a cocktail.
At 46, Steve was the youngest veteran we visited. He was also the most intense, but none of the conversation focused on his time in the military, rather it was about what happened after his time there.
Steve used to work in high tech. Wore a tie. Made lots of money and became consumed by making even more money. Had a fancy Beemer, a Harley, a nice house … the “American Dream”. He was physically active and ate a healthy diet. But one day, Steve’s heart stopped and he split his head open falling down on the sidewalk.
Fortunately for Steve, there were people nearby who were able care for him until an ambulance came to take him to the hospital. Several heart operations later, Steve began to think about his life. He – in his words – “found Jesus”. And as he recuperated in the VA Hospital, he realized that many patients there had no place to go and would wind up using drugs and alcohol, and sometimes, becoming homeless as a result. So he started a non-profit to help vets transition back into civilian life. Steve is being released from the hospital tomorrow, and like Helen, his biggest concern is getting back to the volunteer work that he feels he was called to do.
John was in the Army during Vietnam, and was a cook for the officers. He lives in a small town in Southern Oregon and felt a little out of his element in the “big city” of Portland. I had a good time teasing him about that.
John told us that in the Army, there were three separate dining areas – one for the officers, one for the medical staff, and then the “mess” for the regular enlisted personnel. He said that the officers got the best food. When we asked him how the hospital food compared to the officer food, John told us that the hospital food tasted like shit, and that they could use some cooking lessons! This made our whole group crack up, and I think we woke up John’s sleeping roommate with our laughter.
John loved to show off his surgery scars where doctors had wrapped the upper curve of his stomach around his esophagus to cure a bad case of GERD. His biggest complaint was that his soft food diet was boring as hell, and that he probably wouldn’t get to eat turkey for Thanksgiving. John was very excited about being released tomorrow, so he could get back to his small town and his bride of 33 years.
(Looking back on this experience that ended just two hours ago, I would absolutely do it again. I went in there hoping to brighten the days of a few strangers, but I had no idea that they would brighten mine so memorably. As an added note, every single veteran we spoke with expressed their gratitude for the quality of medical care they were receiving, and for the staff and volunteers who work at the VA Hospital. It’s great to know these fine people are in such good hands.)