Special team honors the dead at Augusta VA hospitals

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Linda Doyle paces down the hall of the Uptown Division of the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center carrying a triangle of neatly folded U.S. flag.

She hands it off to nurse and Army veteran Cynthia Lockett, standing at attention outside the room while others nearby also stand at attention. Once the door opens, Lockett performs a precise turn to hand it off to nurse educator Sheila Thomas, who will then drape it over the gurney. Once the gurney emerges, staff with hands over their hearts or saluting greet it, then walk with it down the hall toward an elevator that descends to the morgue.

All of it is done without a word.

The silence is part of the reverence the Honors Escort team provides for those who die at the Augusta VA hospitals. The event Monday was just part of the training the team gets to make sure all of the protocols are followed and the proper respect is shown, said Thomas, who went to a VA conference so she could train teams properly.

The quietness is part of what would occur if the death were happening in the military, said Army veteran Scott Rice, who lives in a Community Living Center at the Uptown Division and is part of the team that responds to a death. The protocol when he was in the service was to call roll and when the fallen service member's name is reached, "there is silence," he said.

The practice of draping the body with a flag and escorting it had been done at the VA for years, but recently the VA has moved to formalize the process, said Nancy Gilmore-Lee, a retired Army colonel and chief nurse for geriatrics and extended care at the Augusta VA.

People in the hallways know to make way for the flag-draped gurney "just like in the community when people pull over on the side of the road" for a funeral procession, she said.

The team practices some of the trickier maneuvers, such as folding the flag once the procession is done.

Nurses Jackie Williamson and Roy Smith struggled a little to get it turned the right way at first, but with Lockett and Gilmore-Lee pitching in, they got it almost all the way to the end.

"Tuck it," Gilmore-Lee whispered to Williamson, who put the finishing touch on it while the team applauded their effort.

Part of that training is learning proper handling and respect for the flag, Doyle said.

You have to "treat it as a living being," Smith said.

When a patient dies on a unit, the family is called and, after a viewing, is asked whether they would like the Honors Escort, Doyle said. No one has said no to that yet, she said.

Once the body is prepared and the team ready, the family can be part of the procession, Gilmore-Lee said.

"They are actually right behind the gurney," she said.

It's the proper way for VA staff to honor the veteran, Thomas said, "and it allows the staff also to pay their respects."

The families appreciate that at a difficult time, said Doyle, the hospice and palliative care coordinator.

"From the families we get feedback from, this is just part of the whole process of losing their loved one, that they have closure and it is something positive they can remember," she said. "It's something where they all can participate. I've even had one where they brought the family dog and they were in the procession."


Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com