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New iPads at Dorn VA help veterans in hospice, nursing homes see family

Last month, the Dorn VA enacted a no-visitors policy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, visitors are stopping by the Dorn VA virtually.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Technology is helping Columbia veterans in hospice connect with their families during quarantine.

Last month, the Dorn VA enacted a no-visitors policy to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Now, visitors are stopping by the Dorn VA virtually.

"Today is day number 37 that I haven't been able to come," said Helen Thomas, whose husband, Dr. Albert Thomas, is in hospice care at the W.J. Bryan Dorn VA Hospital.

Every morning, thanks to new iPads at the Dorn VA, Helen video chats her husband via FaceTime. Their daughters Liz Hammonds and Joy Wettlin, who live in Simpsonville, also join in.

"It means the world to us," said Hammonds. "I love seeing him smile."

"We are very grateful because this is the only way we get to see him at all," said Wettlin.

Thursday morning, the family allowed News 19 to join in on their FaceTime call.

"It brings you together without being together," said Dr. Thomas. "In my day, it didn't exist."

Dr. Thomas is 92 and a patient in Warriors Walk, a unit for terminally ill veterans at the Dorn VA.

While visitors can't come inside, rooms are still "filled" with family.

"Just on the phone you can hear their voice but you can't see their eyes, so you can't see them smile. So when we're using the iPad, they can see those things and it makes them feel closer to their family," said Diane Gatling, Nurse Manager of Warriors Walk Hospice and Palliative Care Unit. "It gets kind of lonely here, and we don't want them to focus on their condition. We want them to focus on living the best days they can."

If a veteran is nearing end of life, Gatling tell us they will bring family members in on a limited basis to visit.

"We also have some families that come to the window and they're able to visit," said Gatling. "They'll open the blinds and they're able to see them through the window."

The Dorn VA's Community Living Center (CLC) houses both nursing home and hospice patients in Warriors Walk. All veterans in the CLC have access to video calls any time of day.

"It's exciting to say hi to everybody and see how they look...dolled up and beautiful!" said Dr. Thomas to his family via FaceTime.

"I think it's really important to utilize the time when a veteran is still alert and they're able to engage with their family. To be able to have that time to be able to do that before end of life also contributes to their memories of that loved one," said Heather Ruffin, Recreation Therapist at Warriors Walk and the CLC.

The memories are most certainly cherished.

"We've been married for 38 years," said Helen to her husband via FaceTime. "Do you remember what we always say?"

"Two of them were happy!" he replied.

For Helen and her family, they're anxiously awaiting the day when they can hug their favorite veteran.

Credit: Family of Dr. Albert Thomas

"We'll give him lots of hugs and kisses and his favorite thing, chocolate milkshakes," said Helen. "We're thankful that the VA has been so good to let us do [video calls], plus they've taken extra good care of Albert in taking every precaution needed to keep everyone safe."

Dr. Thomas served in the Army for a little over a year, from 1950 to 1951. He completed basic training at Fort Jackson before going to San Antonio, TX to serve at Brooks Hospital in a MASH unit at Fort Sam Houston.

Credit: Family of Dr. Albert Thomas

Dr. Thomas went on to graduate from medical school, and served as an OB/GYN at Lexington Medical Center for many years. We're told he delivered over 6,000 babies.

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