Veterans Health Administration
Iraq War Veteran Becomes VA Nurse
Mike Twigg was 38 years old when he decided to join the Army. It was 2007, and the war in Iraq was going full tilt.
“I wouldn’t call it a mid-life crisis,” said Twigg, who up until then had been working as a medical products salesman. “It was just a very unusual way to make a career change. I decided I wanted a job in the medical field, and I thought I could get training for that in the Army.”
Sounds like a solid plan. Still, isn’t 38 a bit old to be joining the Army?
“In boot camp everybody called me ‘Pops,’” Twigg said. “But believe it or not, I wasn’t the oldest guy there. “Most of the 300 recruits in my unit were in their late teens or early 20s, but there was one guy who was 39, and a female recruit who was 42. There was a big surge going on in Iraq, and the Army was looking for anybody they could get.”
Twigg was trained as a medic and ended up working in an Army optometry clinic in Fort Drum, N.Y. But not for long.
“In 2009 I got an opportunity to deploy, so I did,” he said. “I wanted some experience in the field, in combat. I wanted to get dirty, to do some hands-on trauma work. I wanted to find out if I was cut out for that kind of thing. Plus, I wanted to deploy because I thought it was the right thing to do. We were at war.”
“In boot camp everybody called me ‘Pops.’ But believe it or not, I wasn’t the oldest guy there. ”
While deployed in Iraq Twigg served as the medic on supply convoys that brought food, ammunition and equipment to troops fighting in the field.
“Luckily, most of the injuries I dealt with weren’t all that serious,” he said. “Guys will get bruised or broken fingers doing fairly routine things. Or they’ll twist an ankle when they jump off the truck. Those trucks are built way off the ground, and if you jump off and land the wrong way, there goes your ankle.”
Then there were the not-so-routine injuries.
“If there’s a catastrophic event — let’s say an armored vehicle takes a direct mortar hit — sometimes there’s nothing you can do. You look inside what’s left of the vehicle and you see brain matter on the dashboard. You know everyone in there is dead, but their buddies are screaming at you to do something, so you need to at least go through the motions. It makes people feel better when they see you doing something. So you pretend.”
Good, Bad, and Difficult
After leaving the military Twigg used his GI Bill to obtain his bachelor’s degree in nursing at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, after which he promptly applied for a job at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. He’s been working the night shift there since April, attending to patients on the medical-surgical ward.
“Honestly, it’s the only place I wanted to work,” he said. “I want to take care of Veterans. When I was in Iraq patching soldiers together I realized that a lot of these guys were going to need a lifetime of care. I want to be there for them, and VA is the best place for me to do that.”
Twigg said there’s another reason he and VA seem to be the right fit.
“Sometimes Veterans, as patients, can be difficult,” he explained. “They are unique. They’ve had a hard life. They’ve been through things that most people haven’t. So when they come to the Cleveland VA it helps if they have someone they can identify with. They can relate to me because I know these guys, I know what they’ve been through. They’ll talk to me because I’m a Veteran, like them, and because I make it a point to be a very good listener.”
And when Twigg says ‘good listener,’ he means it. “I practice active listening,” he explained. “I listen, then I restate their concern or something else they’ve said. This shows I’m paying attention, and it builds rapport in case I have to do something unpopular later on like give them a shot or a bad-tasting medicine.”
The former Army medic enjoys what he does but admits that his job — like any job — has its ups and downs.
“The patients who are the most challenging are the ones who don’t want to get better,” Twigg said. “They can be combative. Sometimes they’ll throw things at you. We’ve had patients rip IVs right out of their arms. These guys aren’t just medically unstable; they’re psychologically unstable. They’ve done three or four deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. They have PTSD, or they’re alcoholics or heroin users who are going through withdrawal. You want to help them get better; you want to make a difference. So when they don’t want to get better it can be frustrating. You look at these guys and you know most of them aren’t even going to make it to 50.”
Buying Some Time
As frustrating as it may be, Twigg never gives up on any of his patients, no matter how hopeless they might seem.
“You have to realize you can’t save them all,” he admitted. “But you do your job. And you hope you can buy them a little time, even if it’s only a month or two. Because during that month they might think about things; they might decide to turn it around. They might flip that switch. So you always try to buy them some time.”
The Iraq Veteran sees more than his fair share of heartbreaking cases. But he also has the privilege of caring for patients who are downright inspirational.
“I was talking to this one Veteran in his early 80s,” he said. “He’d been taken prisoner during the Korean War. He was a patient here at Cleveland, and he wasn’t doing so well. We tried several different treatments, and nothing was working. One day he was having a really bad time and I told him I was sorry he was having a bad day. He looked at me and said, ‘I was a prisoner of war in Korea for three years. I ate sawdust to survive. So I don’t have bad days.’”
Twigg said that eventually the former prisoner of war grew strong enough to be discharged from the hospital.
“It feels good when you can take somebody who comes in needing round-the-clock medical care and gradually restore them to the point where they’re well enough to go home,” he said. “Seeing that happen is the best part of my job.”