One day, when a new patient was admitted to the psychiatric and behavioral health hospital where nurse Yani Dilag was working the night shift, Dilag had an epiphany.
“We had run out of meals,” he recalled. “And new patients are already cranky. They’ve probably been sitting in the emergency room for hours and they probably weren’t offered a meal or a drink while they were there. If I came to the hospital after an ER stay, I’d be cranky too. I’d be hungry and thirsty. A unit staff member went to Burger King to buy a meal for the patient with her own money. I watched the interaction between her and her patient. The patient calmed down and recognized the staff cared for her.”
Dilag realized that a completely different approach to new patients made more sense. “We should treat them with respect—even though they may come in involuntarily in handcuffs. As soon as the handcuffs come off, we should extend our hand, introduce ourselves, and ask if they’re hungry or thirsty or have a headache. Instead of starting with paperwork, we should ask them how they feel. We should make them feel important. They’re our guests. We should try to win their trust from the beginning.
This compassionate and humanistic way of working with patients made a difference in new patients’ attitudes and behavior at the hospital. “When our clients saw that they got respect, you didn’t hear them getting angry,” Dilag said. “If you’ve built a relationship from the beginning and the patient trusts you they will talk to you. I gave them the opportunity to make choices.”
His relationship building skill and his ability to earn his patients’ trust, as well as his diverse background, prepared Dilag well for his work as a combat casualty assistance visiting nurse for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
Before joining the Society, Dilag was a civilian nurse, a Navy hospital corpsman, a Fleet Marine Force corpsman, and an Air Force nurse. He also worked for a federal government contractor as a linguist. He has earned degrees in political science and international affairs.
After taking a break from nursing, Dilag was inspired to return because he missed the taking care of people. Knowing the number of veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was increasing in his area, he began taking continuing education classes about PTSD, learning about the medications used to treat it, and exploring different ways of healing. “This was very challenging for me,” Dilag acknowledged. “I never had any background in mental health—I just had medical and surgical experience. But since I’m a veteran and I’ve lived with Marines as a Navy corpsman and worked with Soldiers and Airmen, I can relate to the warrior culture.”
When Dilag learned about the NMCRS visiting nurse program, he knew it would be a good fit. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be working with Marines and Sailors and I can really relate to them. I’ve been one. I had similar experiences in Iraq. And one of the reasons I went into mental health nursing was to help folks with PTSD.” He started with the Society in August 2013.
“The important thing in this job is building trust in your relationships. When you have a relationship with your patients, you give them hope. There’s less likelihood your patient will commit suicide if they have hope. Even the simple things actually mean a lot to them. For example, the fact that you’re going to meet them at Starbucks or Panera means they trust you. Some of them are really hyper vigilant and don’t want to come out of their houses. If you establish a trusting relationship and they’re willing to go to a public setting, that’s a big step. If they’re able to do that, then they can become less insecure.”
“If one of my patients is attending a retreat, and I show up at the airport for the send-off, that gives them emotional support. When they see me show up, they think, ‘that’s a big thing that my nurse cares for me.’ It may look trivial but, from the emotional support standpoint, it means a lot.”
Dilag also connects his clients with local resources that are appropriate for them and their families, including support groups, therapy, and opportunities for recreation, scholarship, and much more.
“When you talk about scheduling your next visit, they’re already looking forward to seeing you again,” Dilag said. “When people are looking forward to seeing their visiting nurse again in a week or a few weeks, there’s a reason to live. I think of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. When a person looks forward to seeing someone and talking to someone that also broadens their meaning and reason for living. When you get to know them you can help them get better connected. For instance, if they like fishing, I’ll try to connect them with an organization that takes veterans out on fishing trips. It’s about helping to broaden that person’s support network where he or she can meet other veterans who will encourage them to seek help. As other veterans talk about what they experienced and how they got help, it starts to become normalized and the stigma starts to go away.”