Atlanta veterans moved to clear hospital space

Ralph McCall, pictured with his wife Linda, was living at the VA’s long-term care center in Decatur before being evacuated to clear bed space for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients.
Ralph McCall, pictured with his wife Linda, was living at the VA’s long-term care center in Decatur before being evacuated to clear bed space for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients.

The Veterans Affairs hospital in Decatur, preparing for an expected surge of coronavirus patients, cleared space by moving 34 residents of its Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center to VA facilities across three states, separating them from families on short notice.

A VA spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it also moved them for their safety to places less impacted by COVID-19. It tested all for the disease before moving them to prevent the spread of it. One of the 34 tested positive, which greatly concerns the moved veterans’ families.

That veteran was put in the hospital, and those who were moved are alone under 14-day quarantine.

“They couldn’t tell me if my husband had had contact with (the positive case),” said Linda McCall, the wife of 78-year-old Ralph McCall, who suffers from diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. Family members are worried about limited communication and the stress of the move on the veterans, who are in fragile health.

“If he got coronavirus, he wouldn’t live through it. It has been very stressful for me and other family members,” Linda McCall said.

She believes moving the patients exposed them to more dangers, and she questions the necessity of moving her husband more than two hours south to Dublin and other veterans as far away as Alabama or South Carolina.

The VA says the veterans will return at an unspecified date.

McCall and others are concerned about their loved ones’ isolation and about themselves being able to make long drives when visitation is reopened. Visitation had been banned for more than a month because of fears of exposing those in the center to the coronavirus.

The VA is making efforts to connect the moved vets via video calls. McCall received one Monday, with a staff member helping Ralph, who was resting with his eyes closed.

“I said, ‘Baby, if you can hear me and know it’s me, put your thumb up.’” She continued to coax him, and he eventually lifted one thumb.

She had more success Tuesday. He was awake and able to see her.

“He gets tired really quick, but it was good to see his face,” McCall said. “He was happy to see me.”

The VA’s April 13 report said the hospital in Decatur was treating 13 coronavirus inpatients and 76 outpatients. The crest of new cases in Georgia is expected to peak near the end of this month. Hospitals are gearing up before they hope the number of new cases flattens. The state also is developing response plans by creating a 200-bed hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center and making similar arrangements in Macon and Savannah.

Some veteran’s families said they received only a few days’ notice before their veterans were moved. Some were not told the day of removal and were called only as their loved ones were being transported, or after.

“They gave us a couple of days’ notice, literally a couple of days,” said Lisa Gillette, whose husband, David, 61, suffered a series of strokes. The VA moved him about 150 miles to Tuskegee, Ala.

“He can’t walk or talk, so we don’t know how he’s doing,” she said. “Everybody is so distraught. This was their house, their home, and you just kicked them out.”

Ann Brown, the hospital director, wrote to families in a letter informing them, “While we understand changes in care settings can be difficult, we must make these temporary relocations to ensure continued quality of care for all our Veterans.”

Joyce Jamison said she received the letter April 8 and was expecting her husband, Stuart, 78, to be moved last week. But the date kept changing, and she said communication from the VA was poor. She said one administrator hung up on her as she was pushing for more information.

First, Stuart’s move day was scheduled for Monday.

“I went up there Monday and spent 6 ½ hours trying to get a glimpse of him” as they were to move him into an ambulance. But the VA changed the date without telling her, so he never came out. They changed the date to Wednesday, but canceled again. On Friday, he finally was wheeled out for his trip to Dublin. Joyce and Stuart could see each other from a distance.

“He tried to yell to me, but he had a mask on, and I couldn’t understand him,” she said. “I was able to get a picture of him.”

The staff in Dublin called her to confirm his arrival and condition, and sent a picture of his room, she said.

“I’ve accepted it for now,” she said. “He is in a private room now, a sunshiney room, which he loves. I am happy for him, but sad for me.”

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