Confessions Of A VA Nurse: Mending More Crushed Spirits Than Broken Bones

VA nurse TJ Wilcox Olson

For years, a young woman in the Black Hills of South Dakota would sit by the phone from midnight to noon. Around once a week, she'd get a call that would make her heart race. It was a veteran, so distraught, so panicked, so depressed, that the young woman thought he might kill himself.

TJ Wilcox-Olson, 33, (pictured above) worked in patient mental health for 3½ years in the VA Black Hills Health Care System, which serves veterans across a huge swath of the rural West, including parts of Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. Now, she's the patient safety manager, responsible for making sure patients don't harm one another, or themselves. She also serves on the board of the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs.

Search Job Openings

In Partnership With


Wilcox-Olson always knew that she wanted to be a Veterans Affairs nurse; her mother had been one for 33 years. "I saw the life it gave her," says Wilcox-Olson. Having earned a bachelor's degree in psychology before getting her nursing degree, she sees nursing as a way to heal veterans' less visible wounds. "Most people think of nurses as changing dressings," she says. "But these people have other parts broken." She works with veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse problems, veterans who are depressed and homeless, veterans who live in the facility because they need full-time care. When it comes to the costs of war, Wilcox-Olson is on the front lines.

An unprecedented 45 percent of post-9/11 veterans are filing for disability benefits, reported The Associated Press, many of them for mental health issues. In a study of almost 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets, 37 percent received a mental health diagnosis, usually post traumatic stress disorder or depression.

More: 5 Million Health Care Jobs Created By 2020, Regardless Of 'Obamacare,' Report Says


While an increased awareness of mental health may be partly responsible for the uptick, Wilcox-Olson says that it also speaks to the changing nature of war. Active duty always requires servicemen to train their minds in particular ways, and "for the guys now, it's much more of a mental game." With more and more women fighting in wars, there are also far more incidences of sexual trauma.

Wilcox-Olson never refers to her patients as patients; they're always veterans. At first she was hurt when they refused to share experiences of active duty with her. "You don't know anything," some would tell her. "You're not a veteran."

"I had to learn not to take that personally," she says.

More: What Future Nurses Need To Know


This is part of the struggle of providing care for returning troops. When someone suffers mental health problems due to an illness, a divorce, or the death of a loved one, a nurse has at least a conceptual starting point to understand the person's trauma. But that isn't true for a VA nurse who hasn't been in battle.

"I don't know what they saw or where they're coming from, the experiences they've had," says Wilcox-Olson. "I'm not sure how to help them -- I wasn't there. I don't know what they're thinking about."

Wilcox-Olson remembers one veteran who was facing a wall, terrified, and wouldn't respond when she called his name. She shouted and shouted, but he didn't register her voice at all. When the man finally came out of it, he was shaking.

Another veteran was working in the on-site greenhouse as part of a work therapy program, but the smell of dirt triggered something in him. "That was quite eye-opening for me," she says. "The everyday things we take for granted."

More: Confessions Of A Male Nurse: Dealing With Nasty Jokes, Sexual Propositions


And when Wilcox-Olson was working the night shift, a veteran would call up at least every other day. Usually they were just lonely, she says. But around once a week, she'd send someone to the caller's home, to make sure the veteran didn't hurt himself.

Working in mental health has several added challenges, like the fact that many veterans are hesitant to accept her care at all. Although things have improved a lot in the last couple of decades, mental health problems still carry a stigma. That's especially true for those on active duty, who may worry that any record of mental issues could derail their career.

"I've had veterans come in and ask, 'How do I tell my kids why I'm here? Why I've been admitted to the hospital?'" Wilcox-Olson says. "It's just like any other hospital," she replies. "You came to the hospital to get help."

Despite all the trauma she sees, Wilcox-Olson doesn't sound worn down. On some tough days she'll go home to her husband, and pet the cat for comfort. But overall, she's grateful. "I'm lucky that I can leave it here at the facility before I go home," she says. And while mental health work can be frustrating -- as addicts relapse, and conditions prove complex and intractable -- it gives Wilcox-Olson that same energy of purpose that she saw in her mother.

"It's amazing," she says, "how you can really affect someone's life by caring for their mind."


Looking for a job as a nurse? Click here to get started.

Hidden Wounds: Mark and Heather Litynski





Don't Miss: Companies Hiring Now



More From AOL Jobs


Filed under: Homepage For Heroes

Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

27 Comments

Filter by:
diacraig

I am proud to serve as well as a VA nurse. No perfect hospital anywhere but we strive to give excellent care. I feel honored to work with America's Heroes. I take my job seriously and find most nurses do. You are right ..it is a calling. I had worked private sector for years. The hospital I was at closed after being in business nearly 100 years. No thanks. I now have a full time job I love. Again I am old school, but what a priviledge to get to do what I do for these men and women every day, serves me proud. I thank God every day for my job.

October 24 2012 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
FABULOUS JOHNNYG

I GO TO THE BROOKLYN, NEW YORK VA HOSPITAL ALL THE TIME, IT'S JUST LIKE ANY OTHER HOSPITAL, EVERY ONCE AND A GREAT WHILE THERE MAY BE A SMALL PROBLEM, NOTHING THAT CAN'T BE TAKEN CARE OF. I AM ALWAYS TREATED WITH RESPECT AND GET THE BEST OF CARE. I AM ALWAYS READY TO SHAKE THE HAND OF ANOTHER VETERAN AND THANK THEM FOR THERE SERVICE. IT'S BECAUSE OF THEM THAT WE LIVE IN THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH.

~~~~~ "THE INCREDIBLY FABULOUSJOHNNY G." ~~~~~
UNITED STATES COAST GUARD, RETIRED --DISABLED AMERICAN VETERAN ------ PATRIOT GUARD RIDER -- WE RIDE WITH RESPECT -

September 14 2012 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
qusakamoto

I am a Vietnam Era Veteran.I remember JFK said that life was inherently
unfair.
He also ask who ever said tha life was supposed to be fair.
Bottom Line we live until we die and thats it.
We should not expect fair.
.

September 14 2012 at 5:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MONSTERDEADHEAD

ill i can said is when i go to va.its allday thing.no one cares

September 14 2012 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dandybug.reiner

Thank you to this VA nurse. I wish more were like her. My father is a Veitnam veteran & I find it disgusting the disrespectful way he is treated by our local VA. He has PTSD among many other ailments. My father is a tough, hard working marine and the only time I have ever seen the man shaken is when dealing with the VA. To them my Dad is nothing more than a number and not a person.

September 14 2012 at 3:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
VFW792

Thank you from Veteran's everywhere. As a Volunteer (and a veteran) to help get veteran's to the VA hosp, there needs to be more dedicated health care proffesionals such as TJ. Also capable veteran VOLUNTEERS can be a great help to veterans in need. You can speak their language!! Please get involved.

September 14 2012 at 12:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Maverick

THANK YOU!

September 14 2012 at 12:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Buckingham's

This young lady is proof that angels on earth DO exist;....she's beautiful and courageous.
God bless......................

September 14 2012 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
motown571

As a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD I would like to thank this young lady for all she does for us. I have been in treatment for many years at our local VA and they have helped me greatly. Thanks to all who help us.

September 14 2012 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank

I have worked as a mental health tech on an in-patient mental health ward for nearly eight years at Bay Pines VA hospital in FL. In May of this year I suffered a major depression of my own, and immediatly sought help. I returned to work in June and worked for a month befor I was told I was being transfered to a different unit because I was "unfit for duty" on mental health. I have been out of work since the 18th of July, and have been fighting this decision since. I had to undergo a "fitness for duty" exam by both a physical doctor and psychological doctor of the VA chosing, both of which I have passed. I am now being charged with AWOL for not working a medical/surgical unit they transfered me to. I have worked mental health for 16+ years, I have not worked medical/surgical in almost 20yrs. The letters I received from the VA stated that the exam would determine whether or not my presence in the work area posed a significan risk of substantial harm to myself or others. It was this statement that caused me to decide not to work on the medical/surgical unit. I didn't want to put myself at risk, or the veterans I was supposed to be helping. In 2009 I was assualted by a veteran on the mental health unit, which required corrective surgery. I was never offered counseling, yet continued to work with the veterans until my surgery. When I returned to work after my surgery I carried on with my work as I did before. I have received awards from the veterans themselves who appreciated the care I was able to offer them. Now I feel as if I am being punished for having troubles of my own. I could relate stories of the injustice some of our veterans suffer on this mental health unit, but don't want to appear as a disgruntled employee. I just want to go back to work, and work with the vet's, doing the most I can for them. But now, after dealing with management and the HR department, I am reluctant to return. I fear retaliation by the staff, and upper management. I have also worked in the civilan sector of mental health, and can honestly say that the civialns have it better on an in-patient psych unit, than the veterans do.

September 14 2012 at 10:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Frank's comment
luckycur

sorry about your bad luck, as for the AWOL, that can only apply if you failed to call in, or report for duty. The administrations hands are tied, like the military, they must follow protocol. Impuning with VA beccuase of your own problems is wrong, The VA does what it can, with the limited funding offered up by Congress. During the Bush years, they were level funded most years, only over the past few years have they seen increased budgets, but only due to pressure on our politicians from the families of Vets who took their lives.

September 14 2012 at 11:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Jobs

In Partnership With
Keywords:
Location:

Search Articles

Top Companies Hiring

July 20 - July 27

Looking for work? See what companies added new openings this week.

×

Check out our new Map Search

Locate your next job using the new AOL Jobs Map Search!

Pin down your next great opportunity today.