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Here's why VA hospitals in Texas are treating COVID-19 civilians

The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs deployed the “Fourth Mission” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

AUSTIN, Texas — “I finished my shift and then I went out there and inside the bag was a doll,” said Kassidy Keathley, a Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Temple nurse.

If the best gifts in life are not expected and are priceless, then Keathley can add a gift from a Navajo grandmother to her list.

“[It’s] dressed in Navajo clothing, Navajo jewelry, even made a simple mask,” Keathley said.

The doll was made showing gratitude. Keathley bought the family groceries when COVID-19 kept them in quarantine and on their reservation.

“When I got home, I bought a glass case for the doll, and I kept it on my dresser,” Keathley said.

What took this Central Texan to another state was a different volunteer effort.

Keathly went to Shiprock, New Mexico under the VA’s “Fourth Mission.” The Fourth Mission is a government operation using VA resources to treat civilians.

“It was hectic. A lot of these patients were coming from the reservations. We needed to know how to get in contact with the translator if necessary," said Keathley. "We needed to know things about their culture. For example, a lot of the patients would have an item that they needed to keep with them at all times because these items would be blessed by a doctor of their tribe. And it was for their health and they had to keep it with them at all times."

“That’s part of our culture. Many of these folks have extensive military backgrounds, so they know about the call to duty,” said U.S Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.

In Texas, the Fourth Mission sends people like Keathley to anywhere in FEMA Region 6. It frees up bed space in VA hospitals around the state.

“We reached out to quite a wide network,” Michael Pomager, Audie Murphy Memorial VA Hospital chief nurse, said.

Two dozen civilians with COVID-19 went got treatment at Audie Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, in San Antonio.

“COVID-19 intensive care patients are very complex and take a great deal of resources and often very unstable. So, for them to make a journey of 200 or 300 miles takes a good deal of effort and coordination,” said Pomager.

People from El Paso, Del Rio, Victoria, Starr County and Eagle Pass were transferred to the San Antonio hospital.

As of mid-September, one civilian with COVID-19 is still getting care.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said there is no set time for the Fourth Mission to end.

"It depends on the situation on the ground. When the governor tells us it's done, then we will return to normal operations in that we will only serve veterans,” Wilkie said.

“We used to joke that it was the family business because my mother, my father and both of my sisters have worked for the VA,” said Keathley.

Keathley said it was hard to leave her family. The two-week job turned into a month.

“The need was greater than previously expected. So, they asked us if we would extend and I agreed,” said Keathley.

Keathley said she would go again if needed.

“Definitely. I love volunteering, and that's never going to change,” said Keathley.

The Fourth Mission is active in more than 45 states. More than 3,000 people are on assignments nationwide.


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