The VA is trying to take care of hundreds of thousands of veterans in hurricane-damaged Eastern North Carolina. Some have medical problems that could be worsened by the storm; others have housing needs.
It’s hardly a normal setting for medical help - a temporary clinic in a Walmart parking lot. But it was a welcome sight for patients like retired Air Force jet engine mechanic Bud Sadler who has an ongoing blood condition.
“The pharmacist told us to come here, because she’s concerned with my numbers and she didn’t want to go another two or three weeks,” Sadler said.
So Sadler, with his wife Fay and their dog Madi made the trip to Havelock from Cape Carteret, where more than a dozen trees are down in their yard and an outbuilding is damaged. Other vets simply saw the clinic as they drove by.
Retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gary Cypress had walked up to the open-air front desk. He wanted to get the paperwork started for getting his knees reconstructed, and figured now is the time, because he’s going to be tied up a while rebuilding.
“My house flooded out, the whole downstairs,” Cypress said. “I think my wife’s car flooded out, so after I drop my family off at my son’s house, I’m going down to take a look at my house.”
The VA opened the temporary clinic after flooding damaged the regular VA medical office in nearby Morehead City. So far, it has treated more than 200 veterans – and not just for storm-related injuries to limbs and joints.
VA patients tend to be older, sicker and more vulnerable to the aftermath of disasters like this.
Dr. Lance Sweeney is the medical director for the Morehead Clinic, and for now, the mobile one.
“The last gentleman lost everything. And it’s a problem,” Sweeney said. "Medicines require refrigeration, you have machines that need to be run from electric and some of them are elderly gentlemen or women that may have no family here. So it’s a crisis, there’s no question.”
Not every veteran in the area can get to the clinic, or has even heard about it. So the VA is also sending teams of health care workers into shelters to find veterans who have been displaced from their homes.
But there's no way to tell how many veterans are in shelters or where they are. So, on a recent day, a team led by Olive Cyrus, the VA’s chief nurse for the Greenville and Morehead City facilities, was on a long circuit, hitting shelters in Greenville, New Bern and Newport.
“Some of the veterans in the shelter may not have transportation, may not be able to get to the mobile unit, and so we want to be able to come out and reach out to them,” Cyrus said.
At a shelter in Chapel Hill, where evacuees were being brought in from some of the worst hit areas, the VA has a permanent team to help with disaster relief claims, medical issues, and other needs.
They set up one veteran with an oxygen system to replace one he lost in the storm, and got a new battery and charging system for another vet who hadn’t been able to power his scooter since he was evacuated.
Marine veteran Gary Keegan — who was homeless even before the storm — was at the VA table inside the shelter to learn about housing options. He said it was great that the VA came to him.
“I really appreciate it,” Keegan said.
Sitting across from him was Caroline Belmore, a VA social work assistant.
“We found out he’s in need of housing… and we’re trying to get him enrolled and connected in the VA healthcare system, so we can provide him with resources and connect him to benefits if that’s an option for him,” Belmore said.
It’s unclear how long the VA will have to keep coming to storm victims. It hopes to reopen the Morehead City clinic Friday, and move the mobile clinic there to help with the storm-related surge in healthcare needs, especially for things like psychological counseling.
In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, VA mental health workers found that PTSD symptoms often worsened from the trauma of living through the disaster. And the effects lingered on for months, even after the electricity came back on and homes were repaired. They expect a similar long recovery for veterans in North Carolina.