VA NY Harbor Healthcare System
Helping Veterans no matter the distance
NEW YORK — On what was supposed to be an ordinary afternoon in mid-March, Lecia Whyte-Rodriques received a phone call instructing her to prepare to work from home for the foreseeable future.
Readjusting to physical distancing and telework amid the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult enough on its own; but for the 22-year Army Veteran and peer coordinator for the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, the well-being of dozens of Veterans hung in the balance.
With 40 to 45 Veterans from varying ages, backgrounds, and service eras meeting five days a week for in-person, outpatient counseling, the PRRC team knew they had to act quickly. Dr. Danny Feld, the psychologist in charge of the PRRC jumped into action redesigning the program to accommodate the new normal.
Whyte-Rodriques began calling their patients and organizing a roster, ensuring that each Veteran had a workable webcam, phone, and internet connection that would allow them to continue receiving daily group counseling.
Housed at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center, the PRRC is a comprehensive program for Veterans who need more support than just a weekly or monthly follow up with a therapist.
The program is made up of an interdisciplinary team of psychologists, a social worker, clinical nurses, therapists, and a peer support specialist. Veteran patients break off into cohorts, or smaller groups, and reconvene later each afternoon.
Most cohorts include process groups where Veterans develop coping skills and explore the interactions between their thoughts and feelings, and learn to take care of themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually. Much of the programming centers around helping Veterans integrate with their families and communities. When they were meeting face to face before the pandemic, they would go out into the community on interactive trips as a group.
Kenry Joseph, a five-year Army Veteran and program participant since December of last year, found the program incredibly fulfilling.
“The clinicians are very, very dedicated to their job, and transitioning to Zoom groups hasn’t been easy for any of us. Our cohort is very close, like a family, and not being able to spend time in the same physical space as one another is difficult,” Joseph said.
“It’s taken some time getting used to. I’m currently sheltering in my apartment with my wife and children, so sometimes it’s hard to find privacy while cooped up at home all day,” Joseph continued.
While some Veterans find close quarters challenging, others find isolation even more troubling.
“Several of our Veterans are elderly and live alone. While they can call in to our groups, most of the time they leave their webcams off, so it’s hard to tell how they are doing, what they are thinking, and if they are doing alright,” Feld said.
But the PRRC is a tight-knit family. When one Veteran doesn’t respond or answer calls and emails, the other Veterans and clinicians check in on them.
“Very early on when we first transitioned to Zoom, one or two of our elderly patients had trouble getting food, so we made sure to get in touch with them and get them what they needed,” Whyte-Rodriques said.
In addition to daily programming via Zoom, the PRRC clinicians send newsletters filled with activities, experiences, and supportive content that allows their Veterans to stay occupied during the day.
“I’ve gotten to watch my fellow Veterans struggling with anxiety, struggling with depression, struggling with reconnecting with their families, open up and heal,” Joseph continued. “The groups really pull them out of a dark place, whether it’s yoga, Tai-Chi, meditation, learning how to play an instrument or create art, these clinicians help us find our path and our passion.”