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 Maryland Veterans Home Staff Attend White House Salute

It’s only around 45 minutes from the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in Charlotte Hall, Md., to the White House, but it’s a world Russell Keogler, the facility’s administrator, and his COVID-19 Command Center team staff never imagined they would experience up close and personal.

But they did. And, he tells Provider it was more than wonderful.

Keogler received notice from Charlotte Hall’s owners at HMR Veterans Services of 10 tickets for staff to use to attend the Trump administration’s Salute to America on the nation’s 244th birthday on July 4. Tested by the strains of caring for residents during a non-stop pandemic, Keogler saw the opportunity to take part as a real honor for his team who have worked tirelessly and literally around the clock since COVID-19 became the scourge of the long term care universe.

“While [President] Trump’s remarks only mentioned health care professionals in general, the team was excited to be able to stand at their tables when prompted by the president to receive recognition from the crowd,” he says. 

“I wish you could have seen the faces of my colleagues. After months of fighting COVID, you could see that for one afternoon their minds were focused entirely on something other than the pandemic. The lack of stress they felt that day was much needed and what a way to have a stress-free day.” 

And, appropriate steps were taken at the event to help prevent spread of the virus, Keogler says, noting that everyone standing in line was asked to wear masks, and during the proceedings, tables were separated to provide social distancing. 

Guests were also “encouraged” by military personnel to wear masks anytime they left their table. “They were kind, but aggressive with this, and most people complied. Signs were also posted promoting precautions,” he says. 

For Keogler, he has long believed that making memories has been the most important thing any human can do, and being part of the nation’s Independence Day celebration certainly qualifies. 

In that vein, he says being on the White House ground around 30 feet from the Truman Balcony was a surreal experience, as was being live and present to hear remarks from the president, see a military plane flyover, listen to military bands, and of course be front and center for a giant fireworks display to cap off the night.

“It was a real family-oriented event and not formal,” Keogler says. “There were a great deal of service members assisting in the event, so it was a nice opportunity to thank them for their service, which is what we are all about: veterans service.”

There was also plenty of time to walk the White House grounds and stop and stare at what is a tremendous amount of history, and something that interested the Charlotte Hall team: security.

“We were in awe. We saw two snipers in full tactical gear with their long gun bags. Just in awe of them. I think we followed them around for a long time and ended up around 30 yards past where we were supposed to be. It was all okay, though,” he jokes.

Like Keogler said, the day was about having a respite to what has been a challenging 2020. Opened in 1985, Charlotte Hall is capable of housing 454 veterans, divided between 286 skilled beds and 168 assisted living. Admissions have been closed for months because of COVID-19, so current occupancy is 310, which is down from the normal 420, he notes.

Like long term care providers the world over, the virus has stressed all involved and left the facility with many sad days. Staffing is back to normal but was down for a time and supplemented by staff from the Veterans Administration.

Keogler says there have been some shining examples of community amid the tragedy of the virus, like local St. Mary’s County health officials who have been in step with the pandemic response and kept Charlotte Hall informed of any development.

Some other bright spots include the response from outside on personal protective equipment (PPE), as for instance Vaughn Hockey, which augmented its sporting goods production to design isolation gowns for Charlotte Hall staff. In addition, Keogler says local aerospace workers and volunteers from the local library helped on PPE by producing 400 3-D generated face shields before any shortages occurred.

But, in the end, it is the staff at Charlotte Hall who have been the heroes of this pandemic, Keogler says. And, below are their stories, with biographies of each of the staff (written by Charlotte Hall) who made the visit (with their significant others) to the White House for a salute to America, and to them.

Keogler: a
s evidenced by the air mattress in Keogler’s office, he has dedicated every hour since March to ensure that the veterans of Charlotte Hall receive the best care possible. Shifts exceeding 24 hours are common, taking him away from his wife and son for most of the past four months. The time Keogler does spend with his family is in the car. Being legally blind, he relies on his wife to commute to and from work on days he does not sleep at the home. While managing the operations of Charlotte Hall, Keogler has worked with State Veterans Homes in Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, and New York to assist in the acquisition of resources and the establishment of procedures to improve the care for veterans. On Easter Sunday, he was asked to leave his family to fly to Alabama to assist with an outbreak at a Veterans Home. His protocols for COVID-19 response have been recommended as standards in practice by state and federal agencies throughout this pandemic.   

Kristopher Brown, assistant administrator: Brown served in the Army between 2002 and 2010, exiting as an E-5. Since leaving the service, he has dedicated his life to serving those who served. Brown commutes four hours roundtrip each day from his home so that he can work at Maryland’s only State Veterans Home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown relocated himself to a hotel near Charlotte Hall for four weeks to ensure he was available at all hours for residents and staff. While working on the front lines, Brown contracted the coronavirus. While symptomatic, he did not sit idly at home. Rather, he continuously reached out to Charlotte Hall for opportunities to telework. He did so because in his words, “our veterans deserve it.”

Linda Hayden, infection control, RN: As the Infection Control RN at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, Hayden is responsible for overseeing all aspects of COVID-19. During the entirety of this pandemic, she has been actively battling breast cancer, while simultaneously caring for her mother at home. Despite her understanding of the potential hazards associated with her preexisting condition while working in a COVID environment, she has worked seven days per week since March to ensure that all efforts to mitigate the spread of this virus were in place and operating effectively. Hayden is a true example of a health care worker who has put her own health in jeopardy each day. Her reason: “Our veterans and staff need us to be there for them.”

Ashley Radano, director of recreational services: Since the age of 20 and for the past 10 years, Radano has dedicated her professional career to caring for the veterans at Charlotte Hall. During the pandemic, she has made the difficult decision to protect her family through self-isolation. While working seven days per week with residents confirmed as having COVID-19, Radano sent her young daughter to live with family for nearly a month. Veterans are her passion, and caring for them is a privilege in her mind. 

Brianne (Bre) Loux, quality assurance: Since the onset of COVID-19, Loux has covered the responsibilities of the entire quality assurance team. Her workdays have doubled, taking her away from her husband and two children. Loux is responsible for local, state, and federal reporting directives, requiring her to work seven days per week. While not a member of the home’s administration, her dedication goes far beyond any individual she reports to. Her organizational skills have allowed the team to capture data in a manner not typically seen within long term care organizations.​​​

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