Dr. Jesse, thank you for that kind, and mercifully brief, introduction. Thanks also to Michelle Lucatorto, the emcee for this important ceremony. Let me also acknowledge:
Congratulations to each of our dedicated, high-performing honorees. They have distinguished themselves through high-level competence and devotion to our Veterans, and through the professional respect of their contemporaries.
On behalf of all of us in VA, I am honored to congratulate, thank, and recognize these six very special employees for their extraordinary performance in a profession where excellence is the norm; where a caring heart, a keen and disciplined mind, and healing hands are every day tools of the trade; and where large doses of comfort and compassion are dispensed—all without prescription!
For the more than six million Veterans who seek care, comfort, and compassion within VA each year, VA nurses personify VA healthcare. The skills of our physicians and surgeons are essential to the science of healing—but it's our nurses who transform science into healing art.
The late Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dag Hammarskjold, once observed that the "constant attention by a good nurse may be just as important as a major operation by a surgeon." Many of us would agree.
Here's a story I've told before, and I ask your indulgence in telling it once again. You see, I carry with me the memory of an incredible nurse. She was the Head Trauma Nurse in the Amputee Ward at the 95th Medevac Hospital in Danang—and she changed my life. I was Medevac'd there after tripping an anti-personnel landmine in April 1970.
My foot had been severely damaged, and the wounds were still open, raw, quite painful. I did not understand the extent of my injuries, nor how long recovery and rehabilitation could take, nor how this injury had changed my opportunity to continue serving in uniform. I was young and invincible.
Soon after my arrival, this trauma nurse visited me, as she did everyone else. She had particularly sage advice for me. She looked at my injuries and told me that, when I returned stateside, I would probably be offered a Symes amputation—removal of the rest of the foot at the ankle. She hinted that there would be some pressure on me to sign the release forms.
"They are going to give you a lot of reasons why they think this has to happen," she said, "but the basic reason is that no one currently makes a prosthesis for a forefoot amputation like yours, but they do make one for the entire foot." So the preference was to fit me for the prosthesis they had in stock. She added that she had never seen a prosthesis move in ways that an ankle moves.
She then asked whether I might be interested in trying to save my ankle. I said I was, and she quickly told me that I needed to rotate that ankle to keep it mobile, to keep it from freezing up. The ball of gauze wrapped around the open wounds felt like sandpaper as I rotated the ankle inside it. As she left, she added, sternly, "every time I see you, Captain, I expect to see you rotating that ankle."
There was no question about who was in charge of that ward. I was only under her care for three days or so before being Medevac'd stateside, and she never seemed to go off shift. So, every time I heard or saw her coming, I started rotating that ankle just as fast and hard as I could. Painful. I can still almost feel it.
I don't know her name. I don't recall saying good-bye to her, and time has dimmed her face. But just as she predicted, after my return to the U.S., I was informed that the orthopedic surgeon would be removing my right foot at the ankle. My, "No thanks," did not sit well with my surgeon, and what followed were extended back-and-forths that led, at one point, to some stern warnings. Ultimately, we reached agreement to try to fit a prosthesis to my injuries, rather than the other way around. My wounds were closed, and my therapy and rehabilitation began.
That trauma nurse was more than a nurse that day. Her advice changed the course of my life. Had she not known, or cared enough, to make the effort to educate me so I could choose what was best for me, I am certain I would have taken the Symes amputation; would have, in all likelihood, left the Army; and probably wouldn't be here presenting these awards today.
You know, we speak of patient-centered care. When I hear the term, it reminds me of that nurse who, 42 years ago, gave me choices no one else was willing to give me, and it has made all the difference in how I have been able to live my life. She was a nurse who was more than a nurse.
Generations of severely injured and seriously ill Veterans spend long days, weeks, and months in our hospitals. For some Veterans, the anxiety about the unknowns are overwhelming. For others who bear combat's emotional scars, the baggage of war is sometimes too much to bear. These are the days when our nurses are at their very best, delivering their special brand of care for the one percent of our population that puts their lives on the line for America.
VA care is synonymous with medical breakthroughs—and many times nurses themselves are the architects of those breakthroughs: medication bar-coding, electronic hand-off tools for polytrauma patients, and advances in medical research. Breakthroughs that become cutting-edge care.
It is an understatement to say that I hold the profession of nursing in the highest regard. To each honoree—I am proud of your achievements. I applaud you for advancing the noble profession of nursing and for delivering life-saving, life-enabling, and life-affirming care and support to our Veterans. There could be no more fitting tribute than yours to the courageous men and women we are privileged to serve.
On behalf of the countless Veterans and families whose lives you touch, congratulations!
And now, let's present some well-deserved awards.