By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
As a high school student, Diana Patterson discovered nursing through the television screen. “I used to watch ER and that got me hooked,” she laughed. But after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health—thinking she would go into medical administration—she went to nursing school and realized she loved both direct patient care and mentoring other nurses. She returned to school once again to pursue a master’s degree so she could teach nursing.
Meanwhile, Patterson’s professional interests merged with her personal life when her brother deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Army. “When I was in nursing school I had the opportunity to meet an admiral,” Patterson recalled. “He asked me if I could have any job, what would it be. I told him I would love to work with returning soldiers with PTSD. When my brother came back from Iraq I started hearing about the things he and his friends had gone through, and I was hoping there was something to help them.”
The opportunity to pursue her dream job arose when Patterson and her husband, a naval officer, were stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. “The commanding officer’s wife told me the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society was looking for a combat casualty assistance (CCA) visiting nurse and I applied.” Patterson started working at NMCRS Portsmouth in 2013. Soon, her husband received orders to San Diego and now she’s based out of NMCRS Miramar and works with CCA clients throughout Southern California, Indiana, and Illinois.
Despite her extensive training, Patterson confronted a learning curve as a CCA visiting nurse. “I really had to expand my knowledge about mental health,” she explained. “You don’t get a lot of that in nursing school, and when you’re working in a hospital, it’s very rare that you are dealing with debilitating mental health issues. There was a lot I had to learn.”
Patterson did call on her nursing school skills to adapt to working with a new population. “How do I teach a client how to care for himself?” she wondered. “You have to be flexible and creative. Not everyone learns the same way. You learn that in nursing school. You see what tools you have in the home and utilize what you can so clients can learn about themselves and their illness and how to deal effectively with their daily struggles.”
While some client needs are complex, other simple fixes can be effective, Patterson has found. “We use technology to help them keep track of their appointments and when to take their medications. We set reminders on their iPads or smartphones. When you have people who can’t use things like that, we use white boards in the home for communication.”
With one client, there were a lot of people coming into the home to do therapy. We set up a communications board so all the therapists could coordinate. At a glance, they could see what he’d been doing, what his goals were, etc., so his wife didn’t always have to be the spokesperson. Anyone who came in could look at the board and know who he is and how he’s doing.”
This particular client was injured in the U.S. while working at a recruiting station. He pushed his recruit out of the path of an oncoming car that was running a red light and took the full force of the collision himself. “He was on life support for 30 days,” Patterson explained. “His wife had already had conversations about the end of life with his doctor. His wife or her mother had been by his bedside day and night, and they had two school-aged children, one of whom had autism. It was so difficult for her to get help from the Department of Defense health care system and the VA health care system. But she was doing everything they asked of her, day in and day out.
“I provided her with emotional support and educated her about the health care system,” Patterson said. When the VA did not meet the client’s needs, Patterson went into the community to find additional resources. “He had a severe traumatic brain injury and was on life support, then he came back and was walking. Then he had a setback and got an infection and went back to the ICU. Now he’s home and speaking again. He’s able to get up on parallel bars and walk a few feet.”
This miraculous progress came after tremendous effort on behalf of the client, his wife, and their Society visiting nurse. “His wife asked the VA for occupational, speech, and physical therapy, but she still hadn’t gotten referrals after several months. So I found them a resource five miles away from their home where he can get all of those therapies.”
Patterson escorted the client from the Chicago hospital where he was cared for after the accident to his home in Southern California. Patterson accompanied the family on the plane, helping them navigate the airport and providing on-board medical care. “To be able to provide that continuity of care across the country was amazing.”
During the course of a day, Patterson could be in contact with as few as five to dozens of her 125 clients. “With technology, I can get in touch with people anywhere. I get a lot of texts and emails. I talk with about 40 clients on a regular basis, where I’m actively working on something—trying to get their military discharge status upgraded, finding community resources to meet their health care needs, or just providing moral support when they need to talk to someone.”
“No matter how stressful my job is, I always think of the service member and how much more challenging it is for them. It’s their life—they deal with it every minute of the day. When I know they’ve had a big struggle, and I’ve seen the effort they put in and then they’re successful – it’s very rewarding, personally. I just want to go and high five everyone.”