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COVID-19

Montana VA Doctor Reflects On COVID-19 Response Over Last Year

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Montana VA
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Montana Veterans Affairs staff pose for a photo at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic for veterans in Lewistown on Feb. 24, 2021. Dr. Gregory Normandin is in the back on the right (approximately ninth person from the right).

Dr. Gregory Normandin, associate chief of staff for Montana Veterans Affairs, says responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been an experience above and beyond his 15 years with the VA.

Normandin's dad, a World War II vet, played in shaping his desire to serve others and what gives him hope as the pandemic moves into year two.

“He went a shore at Normandy, you know, Omaha Beach at D-Day. So it was always this thought in my mind, would I be able to contribute and be involved and engaged in something like he did, and this is as close as I’ll probably ever come to being able to pay back what he did,” Normandin said.

Normandin’s day to day work focuses on coordinating veterans’ health care outside the VA system. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago, “it was really dark because I was involved in the COVID response for keeping Montana VA open, keeping employees from getting sick, getting COVID and having to be out of work, and it was tough."

Normandin says every day, he would go to a different department to tell someone they needed to go home to quarantine because they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“We had to almost close whole departments, and it gave me a different view of the VA overall, you know, the police department, how essential that is, and the laundry department and the engineering department and the food service, and things you take for granted, the hospital has those things and you never think about it but they’re all critical staff. It’s not just the doctors and nurses that run a hospital. It’s everybody,” Normandin said.

Normandin says trying to keep the VA open and staff safe was a challenge, day in and day out, for months on end. He could not see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“And then the vaccine comes along, and I see a light at the end of the tunnel; I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that just made everything else worthwhile, and now we can move forward and change the trajectory of this whole pandemic by getting vaccinated and continuing to do what we know works: masks, hand hygiene and distancing,” Normandin said.

Normandin had just returned from vaccinating veterans at a pop up clinic in Glasgow.

He says a lot of veterans see the vaccine as a way to get their lives back to some sort of normal.

“It’s really dramatic to see the human emotions that go along with this, the roller coaster in that short period of time because we’ve all been waiting for this for so long and had to make different sacrifices.”

Normandin says hosting VA vaccination events around the state takes a lot of planning and coordination, the ability to anticipate pitfalls and think long term.

To reach more remote communities, Normandin, a pharmacist and five nurses meet before sunrise to plug a cooler filled with vaccine into the back of a small airplane.

“You know getting up early, getting on the flight, getting everybody prepared, making sure you got all your supplies, and all the staff’s there, the vaccine’s secured, and all that,” Normandin says.

After they land, the team meets up with other VA staff and starts setting up the vaccination clinic.

“And veterans start showing up and it’s just like this injection of enthusiasm that you forget everything that happened the prior three or four hours. And that’s the thing, at these events it’s not, ‘What time is it? How many do we have to do? Can we go home?’ That’s not the feeling I get from staff at all.”

Normandin says the vaccination events can feel like a whirlwind, but adrenaline and a sense of urgency to get shots in people’s arms is enough to stave off exhaustion.

“Once we get through this and feel like we can let our guard down, that’s when the exhaustion will hit us, but for now, it’s like we can’t afford to slow down or feel exhausted,” Normandin says.

Normandin says the staff at Montana VA have shown incredible dedication during the pandemic.

“And I feel so proud and grateful," Normandin says. "I get choked up thinking about it because we get to contribute and help veterans and fellow Americans in this critical period of time that we’re living though."