by Michele Murphy
Jennifer Bernard’s journey to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) began when her brother-in-law served in Iraq. It heightened her awareness of the needs of returning combat veterans. So when she saw a job posting for a position at the VA, she decided to leave the private sector and did her own version of “signing up to serve.”
She has never looked back unless it is to think about the many vets she has met along the way and how they touched her life. Each one thus deepened her commitment to help them. Today she serves as director for the VA Lorain Community-based Outpatient Clinic, CBOC as they are called inside the VA. It is located in Sheffield Village.
Bernard is a lifelong Clevelander. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in sociology at Cleveland State University. She worked for the Board of Developmental Disabilities and in the private sector as a behavior specialist with dual-diagnosed adults with mental health issues and cognitive disabilities.
She began her career at VA as a recreation therapy assistant. It is a job she described simply as “getting vets interested in moving again.” She said she would play cards with those who loved cards to improve fine motor skills in their hands. She played basketball, worked on craft projects or played trivia or current events games with others, always endeavoring to assist vets as they worked toward health goals, while making it interesting, even fun.
At Wade Park VA, she worked at Cares Towers with vets who were receiving inpatient rehabilitation services and care. Some had suffered spinal cord injuries while others had dementia and/or suffered from acute psychological issues. She worked with both men and women. Some were as young as their 20s, but many were older. She fondly recalled organizing a special event for someone’s 100th birthday. As a matter of fact, she organized a similar event for 100-year old Clyde Fulton shortly after her appointment to the Sheffield Village outpatient clinic.
It becomes evident pretty quickly that these interactions with veterans touch her deeply. She teared up when she talked about her memories of a former patient. He was undergoing treatment for cancer. He taught her how to play chess and he told her about his goals. “He wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle,” she recalled. He did, but the cancer persisted. She says he set a new goal of seeing his first grandchild. He did and also lived to see the birth of a second grandchild before he died. Bernard said it is easy to get and stay invested in the work when you get to know the veterans’ stories.
She began learning the administrative side of the VA during stints in both the cardiology and surgical service units. Bernard said she was lucky to work with a great team and had a great mentor during that time. She wishes everyone knew “how much they care,” referring to doctors, surgeons and staff, who often work behind the scenes.
“Patient care was always the primary concern.”
She carried that knowledge and commitment to the Ohio City-based McCafferty Center when she became a medical administrative officer/facility director. She said because the center was small, she “had to wear a lot of hats.” The experience prepared her to step up to manage the larger Sheffield Village facility last November.
She laughed when asked to describe a typical day. “There’s no such thing,” but she smiled as she said it. Bernard’s first task, however, is to look at the day’s schedule and make any adjustments that impact veterans’ scheduled appointments. Next, she reviews daily reports dealing with access. Access to service is an important goal across all VA facilities nationally. She is proud the Sheffield Village CBOC not only meets the national goal, but frequently exceeds it. She called it a point of pride that vets can be seen the same day, based on clinical assessment and each veteran’s preference.
She is equally proud that the facility has very nearly achieved another national goal concerning health care provisions for women veterans. “We’re at 83.4 percent,” she stated, and explained the national goal is that 85 percent of women vets have had the opportunity to choose female doctors.
She said their administrative team is currently focused on a stress reduction program for staff. Programs are already planned or under development. They run the gamut from classes on guided meditation or yoga to potlucks.
But she soon returned to what she called the best part of the job: the vets. In addition to striving to provide top-notch care, they are planning a wellness walk on May 17. This marks the first time the event has been held by this CBOC. While she expects that most participants will be staff and vets, she said anyone can join them. The registration fee, which is only suggested, is a donation of toiletry items for homeless veterans. Cash donations will be accepted as well.
On May 19, they will host the Clothesline Project as part of the observance of Military Sexual Trauma Month. The Clothesline Project features T-shirts created by survivors of military sexual trauma.
While still relatively new at Sheffield Village, she said she is recognizing more and more patients by name. They know her name, too, which delights Bernard who said it makes you feel like you are part of the family.
She admitted to becoming a bit possessive about them saying, “These are my vets. You want to make sure they are taken care of.”
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