Health & Medicine

These U.S. veterans continue to serve – in Sacramento hospitals

Hear from veterans who continue to serve in Sacramento hospitals

These medical professionals transitioned from active service in the military to serving the Sacramento community.
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These medical professionals transitioned from active service in the military to serving the Sacramento community.

If you find yourself at one of the Sacramento region’s hospitals on Sunday, Veterans Day, you just might get the chance to thank a veteran — or even an active member of the military — not only for their military service but also for caring for you.

Hundreds of veterans now work in Sacramento-area medical facilities as nurses, doctors and more, and three of them spoke with The Bee about how the values and training they received from the U.S. military are benefiting local patients.

Dr. Joseph Galante at UC Davis Medical Center deployed to Afghanistan, just an hour’s helicopter ride from the fighting, in 2010 during the height of the military surge. He took with him the skills he’d learned as a trauma surgeon at the Sacramento teaching hospital, he said, and he was thankful for that as he confronted the horrendous injuries from improvised explosive devices, or IED’s.

But there were also things the military veteran said he learned from his tours in Afghanistan that have helped him at UCD Medical Center.

“When you’re in that environment for 10 months, seeing so many trauma patients coming in, it really does hone your skills,” Galante said, “and you can see the principals of resuscitation and surgical care and rehabilitation and critical care that really go into helping those injured men and women. Those principles are easily brought back and adapted to the civilian sector.”

The 44-year-old father of two said that the patriotism of his maternal grandfather, who served during World War II, inspired his desire to serve in the military. A Philadelphia native, Galante earned his medical degree in 2000 and served in the Navy Reserve from 2004-2018, advancing to commander from lieutenant.

At UC Davis Medical Center, he is not only a surgeon but also a researcher, educator and leader. It is Galante who ensures the medical center meets all the government and professional requirements to maintain its designation as a Level 1 trauma center for both adults and children. Such centers must be able to provide care for every aspect of injury – from prevention through rehabilitation – around the clock.

Galante also oversees the hospital’s operating rooms. All that work has earned him the title of chief of trauma, acute care surgery and surgical critical care at UC Davis Health. And, as vice chair of education, he ensures that the department of surgery maintains excellence in its education program. On Friday, he joined several of his colleagues in interviewing potential resident physicians.

Two out of nine residents at UC Davis Medical Center will come from the Air Force, Galante said, because the military wants them to have the experience of working at a trauma centers that ranks among the top five nationally in terms of volume and complexity of cases.

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“We, in fact, have ... Air Force trauma surgeons, pediatric surgeons, thoracic surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, emergency medicine physicians embedded in the hospital, providing care to the region in Sacramento while maintaining their skills in a very busy trauma center in order to be ready when their country asks them to deploy,” Galante said.

Military service gave nurse manager Stephanie Johnson the money she needed to pay for nursing school and the training she needed to excel in nursing school. Johnson is the administrative director of critical care at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, and a volunteer firefighter at the Clarksburg Volunteer Fire Department.

But back in the early 1990s, Johnson was a corrections officer dreaming of becoming a nurse. Her husband had finished a four-year enlistment in the Army, and he suggested that she consider it since her enlistment would qualify her for the financial assistance for education through the GI Bill.

The Woodland native, then 22 years old, discovered that the Air Force would train her as a medic, and she was sold. In that role, she said, she was able to do many procedures that registered nurses aren’t allowed to do.

“As long as the doctor is there to walk you through it and teach you,” Johnson said, “you can do things that you cannot do as a nurse. I remember getting to do little, tiny cyst removal surgeries with the doctor right there. They taught me how to suture up little minor surgeries they did in the office. At one point, we were running the little baby circumcision clinic through our office, and I even got to do that.”

When someone dialed 911 on the base, the calls came right to the emergency room, Johnson said, and medics would scramble out to do CPR or push medications through intravenous injections or do whatever else was necessary.

She learned to maintain her cool under pressure and came to look forward to the rush of adrenaline and admire the seamless teamwork and coordination of the trauma-care team, like musicians playing a symphony, she said. In the first year she left the military, she completed two years’ worth of prerequisites for nursing school and got admitted to Yuba College’s nursing program. Her nursing instructors, she said, looked to her to mentor students with little or no experience.

A 10-part documentary series from McClatchy Studios follows three U.S. veterans living with PTSD — coming in November. Yelm HS grad Scott Whisler, who served in Afghanistan in 2010, is helping fellow vets deal with the same struggles he has faced.

Certainly, her training as a medic has helped her as a nurse, Johnson said, but her military service helped to prepare her for the health care field in other ways. For instance, she said, she had to be familiar with many rules and regulations as a service member, and the health-care arena requires that same attention to detail with policies, procedures, regulations and laws.

Over at Dignity Health’s Mercy Medical Center in Sacramento, nurse manager Ericson “Alvin” Fernando displayed much the same ready grasp of detail when questioned. Neither he nor Johnson nor Galante struggle, as many people do, with recalling dates or time-frames.

Fernando served in the Navy from 2004-2009, he said, though for a year of that, he volunteered to attach himself to an Army unit in Iraq. He completed his enlistment in the Navy Reserve from 2009-2012

He and his wife Xuan have been married for 18 months, he noted, but he’ll happily translate that to days or hours if his interviewer would prefer. And, the couple’s first child, Aiden Xander, is due in 40 days.

He’s been in his current role as a manager in the acute surgical unit for 362 days, he said, and on Veterans Day, it will be a year.

His military service taught him to set goals and to devise plan, he said, and then to come up with a backup plan. It also taught him to maintain his composure, he said, because, if he could, then those around him could as well.

“It may be chaotic,” Fernando said. “It may be hectic. We’re going to remain composed, and we’re going to continue to care for our patients.”

Each in their own way, Fernando, Galante and Johnson all emphasized caring. It’s what has fueled their desire to serve their country and to serve their patients, they said.

“Part of me still wants to go back into the military,” Fernando said. “I have a big passion for service.”

One thing people can do to thank a veteran – and their family members – for their service, says Galante, is to work toward erasing the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder. This mental health condition may afflict people who witness or experience a terrifying event for years. It can result in loss of sleep, flashbacks to the trauma, avoidance of situations that trigger memories, anxiety, numbness and depression.

“Post-traumatic stress is an epidemic within the country,” Galante said. “It is easy to attribute it to (only) military and to see that side, but we also need to look at law enforcement, fire, EMS personnel, emergency workers and the victims of violence. ... We really need to come up with ways in this country to identify it, remove the stigma and start to address it.”

Many people don’t want to seek treatment for PTSD, Galante said, because of the negative attitudes and beliefs they face from the general public. People with PTSD have been told to just get over it or face questions about whether it’s real. They face fear, rejection, shunning and discrimination.

Fernando keeps a picture of an iceberg in his office. A small tip juts out of the ocean, but beneath the water’s surface, an ice mass lurks many times larger. It’s a reminder, he said, when he talks to staff or a patient or his family or a stranger that he doesn’t really know everything affecting them until he takes the time to ask questions and observe.

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