Milwaukee VA Medical Center
'It's my passion': MSA at Milwaukee VA honored
“She is my sunshine.”
That one sentence pretty much captures the essence of Carol Jackson.
Veterans, co-workers, family and friends all see Carol – a medical support assistant at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center -- as the sunshine in their lives, and it is the primary reason she is this year’s recipient of the Bethany Award.
Given to employees of the mental health department at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, the Bethany Award recognizes those who “go above and beyond to help a Veteran,” according to psychiatrist Dr. Michael McBride.
“She has never been too busy or engaged in other things whenever a Veteran has a question, a problem or just needs someone to listen,” reads the nomination submitted by a patient at the medical center. “(She) gives them a feeling of positivity, and most of all a smile and a word of encouragement, no matter how the situation may tend to be. I love her. She is my sunshine.”
Her co-workers agree.
“She is just awesome with patients,” said Gina Kangas, outpatient mental health patient manager. “She is so gracious and kind and patient. She always has a smile on her face and is always willing to help.”
“She is the face of the VA at its best,” McBride said. “She’s friendly and helpful. Veterans love her, and the staff love her.
“She brightens my day. … She’s always uplifting.”
Like the sunshine, Carol is more than happy to bring light and warmth into the lives of everyone she encounters.
“I’ve always been a Little Miss Sunshine,” Carol said with a laugh, noting that fellow church members call her Sister Sunshine while her family members also refer to her as Sunshine.
“But that’s just me. I put a smile on so many people’s faces, and that’s what I like to do. I like to see people happy because I’m happy all the time.”
As an MSA, Carol is often one of the first people a patient encounters in the hospital. And it’s not unusual for those coming to a hospital to be anxious, scared or upset.
Carol makes it her mission to put everyone she encounters at ease.
“I don’t know what they’re going through when they walk through that door,” she said. “They start talking to me, and sometimes they stand at the counter and cry. … And so many of them vent to me. I don’t take it personally. I just listen.
“Sometimes, people don’t want you to give you their opinion. Sometimes, they just want you to listen. And I am so good at that.”
But beyond listening, Carol is always ready with words of encouragement or support, and she knows how to walk the fine line between offering support and giving advice.
“Sometimes they ask my opinion about what to do, and I tell them, ‘I can’t tell you what to do.’ I can only say, ‘If it was me, this is how I would play it out.’ And they’re so grateful just to have input from somebody.”
She remembered one man who told her his wife of 44 years had left him to be with someone else.
“He was just crying, tears falling down,” she said. “I kept telling him, ‘There is light at the end of the tunnel. This may be God’s way of putting someone in your life that deserves you.’”
Always doing for others
Jackson, 53, has been at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for 14½ years. She worked for seven years as a certified nursing assistant on the ninth floor before becoming an MSA in the Red Clinic. She moved to mental health 3½ years ago.
She said she has enjoyed the transition.
“I work face-to-face with the Veterans, and I can relate to a lot of them,” she said. “I like to start their day off right.
“After I wake up in the morning, when my feet hit the floor, my husband and I are joking, kidding and making each other laugh,” she said. “That’s how I start my day and how I like to relate to people throughout the day … and that’s how I like to end my day.”
Carol and Larry, her husband of 35 years, have two children and two grandchildren. Larry is a landscaper, a transportation manager and a pastor at St. Gabriel Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee.
On her off time, Carol is an evangelist with the church and also helps with the landscaping business.
And as readily as she serves Veterans, she also serves the elders and others in her church.
“About three days a week, I’m doing something for the elders,” she said. “I’ll help them do their laundry, or get groceries, or fill out some paperwork. I don’t mind.”
A Veteran at heart
Carol is not a Veteran, though she came very close.
As the story goes, one of Carol’s friends filled out a recruitment card from a magazine for her and sent it in to the U.S. Navy.
But even though she had been tricked, Carol told the recruiter she was ready to commit.
“But when I took the physical, I found out I was pregnant,” she said.
The recruiter assured here there would still be a place for her after she gave birth, but Carol decided against it.
“I thought, ‘I can’t just go and give up my child and go overseas or wherever they might send me.’”
She worked for 13 years as a secretary and optician before taking two years off from work. She enrolled in a training program to become a CNA, which led her to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
She jumped at the chance to serve Veterans.
“I could not believe I got that choice,” she said. “I ended up having the best of both worlds. I got to be that secretary that I wanted, and I got to experience firsthand from some of the Veterans what their tour was like.
“I’m a service person – not physically, but in my mind -- because they (Veterans) tell me so much about their good times -- more so than their bad times -- of being a service person.
She said she is eternally grateful for Veterans and the role they play in keeping the country safe and free.
“We would be in such turmoil, living in such hell, if not for the Veterans,” she said. “I feel that nothing I have to do for them is beneath me. If it’s getting someone a cup of water, or pushing them to the cafeteria, it’s not too much.
“It’s not just my job; it’s my passion. I do it all with a smile, and I end with, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
Maintaining good mental health
Working in the mental health unit plays to Carol’s strengths.
In the Red Clinic, Carol said her role was very limited, but in mental health, she gets to interact much more with the patients.
“Mental health is not what people perceive it to be,” she said. “They see it as crazy people. I deal with people who are as sane as I am.
“Everybody needs some help now and then. Everybody needs an outlet – someone to talk to. If you don’t have anybody to talk to – and you don’t have anybody to talk back to you – you don’t have anything.”
While Carol may not be a therapist or psychiatrist, she said her role can be just as important – trying to help patients overcome an obstacle or pain in their lives.
“I don’t know what they went through. But it’s not time to keep reliving that. It’s time to move forward,” she said. “That’s part of your past – I’m not trying to erase that. But I’m trying to show you better days. And that’s what I like.
“I like upbeatness. I don’t like negativity. I don’t like pessimism. I live by the Golden Rule: Treat people like you want to be treated.”
So where does Carol get her positive attitude about life?
“It comes from God above,” she said. “If you walk by yourself, you’re going to be sad. If you’ve got somebody to share that walk with, you’re going to be much happier. And that’s how I feel about life.”
She said she’ll know it’s time to retire when she pulls into the parking lot in the morning and dreads walking through the doors.
But that’s not happening anytime soon.
“I love my job. I love the people I work with, around and for. I couldn’t ask for a better blessing than to be here serving the Veterans as they’ve generously served us. I couldn’t.”
About the Bethany Award:
Started in 2017, the Bethany Award is named in honor of Dr. Jacqueline Bethany, a psychologist with the Veterans Health Administration. In Milwaukee, she ran the Compensated Work Therapy program and was known for her dedication and enthusiasm for helping Veterans. She moved to Tennessee and the VA in Memphis to be closer to her parents. She died in 2016 at age 60. This year, national awards – the Jackie Bethany Awards for CWT Excellence in Vocational Rehabilitation – have been established by the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.