Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Vets brave blizzard for Sunday COVID vaccines
Veterans drove through blizzardy, white-out snow on a Packers game day to get COVID vaccines Sunday during the second day of the Milwaukee VA’s walk-in clinic.
Dr. Ankur Patel, who has helped lead COVID operations, drove that point home to employees before doors opened at 7:15 a.m.
“You will see the joy on their faces and you will know this is very, very special,” he told a crowd of employees in the South Entrance. “They have braved the elements to come out here. We need you to smile, too. We need you to give it your all, and then take one more step. If you do that, I promise you, you will make a big difference.”
He closed with a group chant.
“WHO ARE WE?!?”
“MILWAUKEE VA!” they shouted.
“WHAT ARE WE DOING?!?”
The Milwaukee VA has so far vaccinated more than 3,000 employees and more than 3,000 Veterans. Saturday and Sunday was the second of two walk-in clinics, and the hospital will continue scheduling vaccinations during normal hospital hours.
Doors opened early Sunday so Veterans could get out of the cold and snow. They got their ticket numbers and poured through the East Entrance. Katie Vogelman, who normally works in the Chief of Staff office, was manning a computer, checking eligibility.
She didn’t have to be here but wanted to. She began her drive into work at 4:45 a.m. because of the snow and made it by 6:02. It normally takes a half hour.
“I volunteered because I love our Veterans,” she said. “I didn’t serve, but I love to serve them.”
Volunteer Kathy Cook was busy checking digital temperatures, while others waved orange and white “Follow Me” signs up and down the hallway, directing Vets to waiting areas and vaccination pod areas.
“We’re saving lives today. That’s so special,” Cook said.
Darcel Ehley has worked at the Milwaukee VA for 39 years, but recently moved from the hospital to another building on campus.
“The Veterans keep telling me I’m good looking,” she laughed. “I like that. I really miss seeing them every day. There’s just a camaraderie here. This is what it’s all about.”
Nurse Jennifer DeLaCruz was one of many on hand giving vaccinations. She’s also been vaccinating employees. For her, it’s personal. Her mom, Nancy Engstrom, died a month ago because of COVID complications. She was 67.
“She was in good, physical health. She walked into the hospital, but then it was one thing after another. She was in the hospital for seven weeks.
“When people say, ‘Not a lot of people are dying,’ or they downplay the numbers, I tell them I personally feel this. If you lose your loved one, that’s the only one person that matters,” DeLaCruz said. “I’m doing this in honor of her.”
By 8:40 a.m., more than 156 Veterans were through the line, and Patel said they were going even further to bring folks in.
“The walk-in is just one of many ways we have of getting shots in arms and we’re going to keep it going. We just started an impromptu call operation. We are literally calling Veterans who are close by and telling them they can come in, no wait.”
He said his early-morning speech to employees was impromptu and came from the heart.
“We are ahead of the community (on giving vaccinations), and to be a part of that is unbelievable. People are spending their Packer Sunday with us, and we have employees who only want to save lives. And if that doesn’t give you chills … ”
He pauses for a moment.
“It’s just amazing to be a part of it.”
Then his radio crackles to life. People are asking for tickets to give more Veterans. There are openings in different pods and there are more vaccines to give. Patel walks down the hall, ready to help save more lives.
And it doesn't stop.
"We're up to 220 people," he says over the radio at 9:36 a.m. "This is good work. Let's keep grinding."