Tricia Otts was sitting in her office at a home health agency when an email appeared on her computer screen. “It was a photo of a combat veteran with prosthetics on both legs and a story about his success and what he does to persevere,” she recalled. “When I opened the email and read the story, tears rolled down my face and I realized I needed to go back to work for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. Those guys are why I’m a nurse. That’s my calling.”
So Tricia gave up her administrator position at the agency to return to the work she loves as a combat casualty assistance visiting nurse (CCA VN) for the Society, a job she had previously held at NMCRS Yuma for several years.
Now based out of NMCRS Ft. Worth, Tricia travels throughout North Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado to make home visits and provide support to combat-injured Sailors and Marines. She appreciates the widespread support for veterans that she has observed since coming back to the program. “There are a lot of nonprofits in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that serve veterans and I’ve gotten to know quite a few of them. I find ways to help our clients by connecting them to various other nonprofits which also provide financial assistance, counseling, housing, or whatever they need. It’s easy for me to make a phone call and say, ‘I’ve got this guy.’ and they’re all over it. One thing about Texas that’s amazing is that they embrace the veterans like no other place I’ve been. One challenge is that many veterans are moving out to East Texas and North Texas into the country because Dallas/Ft. Worth is so densely populated that it can be hard for them to function, so when they move it’s a little more difficult to get them hooked up with local community resources.”
On the other hand, sometimes Tricia recommends that her clients relocate because where they live causes them post-traumatic stress. “A lot of the terrain in Arizona actually looks like Afghanistan,” she explained. “I talk to them about relocating to a greener place with trees and grass so they’re not walking out their front door looking at an environment they’re afraid of. When they move, they’re able to function so much better. It’s amazing what these guys have to deal with in their own heads every day. They battle with things we just take for granted.”
Providing consistency in what might otherwise be an unstable life is Tricia’s goal when working with her clients. “I am in constant contact with them. They need to know I’m going to call when I say I will, and that I’m going to connect them to a local community resource when I say I will. I have to earn their trust. It’s hard to gain their trust, but once you have it, you have it for a lifetime—unless you don’t follow through.” Whether she’s on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly schedule of checking on her clients, Tricia is committed to showing up. “Honestly, sometimes it’s just keeping my mouth shut and listening. Whether they want to cuss a blue streak or sing praises to God or to their mom or to us, it’s just lending that ear that they need.”
Tricia understands, however, that listening is not just a passive activity, but a subtle skill. “Sometimes I need to read between the lines,” she explained. “They’ll say little things I pick up on. Sometimes those are little things that I need to go full force on. For example, if I call them on Monday and ask how they are, and they’re very quiet and it’s a short call, but I know it’s someone who usually talks my ear off, I know something is wrong. Maybe they got depressed or something traumatic happened over the weekend. So I call back that evening or the next day to see how they’re doing. I have to step up my game a little bit. They might say, ‘Me and my wife fought all weekend but everything’s ok.’ They might give me a clue, but they’ll downplay it. Sometimes it’s a pride thing. If they’ve done great for a month or so but then hit a hard time, they don’t want to admit to it because they feel like they’ve failed me or failed their family or that they’re just a failure.” So, Tricia constantly encourages them – but holds them accountable. I ask them, “What are you doing to better your life? What are you doing to take the next step? Your everyday living depends on you.”
One combat-served veteran called Tricia out of the blue at 7:30 one morning as he was walking into the first day of his new job. He was worried that his cell phone would be turned off because he couldn’t pay his bill. “I had never talked to this guy before—the Wounded Warrior Regiment gave him my number, but I made some calls to get him some help,” Tricia said. Unfortunately, his cell phone did get cut off that day, while Tricia was looking for help. She tried to meet with him in person, but his schedule wouldn’t allow it, so she switched her correspondence with him to email. “He emailed me the next morning and said his car had been repossessed while he was at work. The next day he received an eviction notice. It was a rough three days. He started saying life was not worth living. I kept emailing him—three times a day—reminding him not to let these things define you. I said, ‘these things are not who you are. They’re just circumstances. They’re huge, but you’re dealing with them. One day you’ll be able to help someone else.’” In the end, the veteran was able to work everything out and is now doing well. He told Tricia the resources she connected him with “helped dig me out of the hole I was in.”
The Society’s Combat Casualty Assistance Visiting Nurses travel thorough out the continental U.S. making home visits to Marines and Sailors who are adjusting to life after combat. Many of these men and women have no visible injuries of war, their scars are mental and emotional and psychological. Our nurses are their lifeline, connecting them to the medical care they need, as well as to the community resources they’re entitled to. Registered nurses, like Tricia Otts, are making a difference in their lives.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso