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Donations Connect Families Via Video Calls

Tablet computer.
Demonstration of the tablet computers Veterans are using to talk to and see their loved ones.

Veterans who receive care at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System can now visit family and loved ones safely using video calls. The video calls were made possible partly thanks to the generosity of a McKees Rocks charity and the American Legion Auxiliary.

To protect Veteran residents and inpatients from the coronavirus, VA Pittsburgh is temporarily restricting visitation at its Community Living Center (CLC) on its H.J. Heinz III campus and its inpatient units at University Drive.

Rani Irish, a VA Pittsburgh program support assistant, quickly realized CLC patients could still see family through online video calls. But the CLC needed tablets and Wi-Fi to make that happen, so Irish turned to her mother, Denise Zellous, for help.

Zellous, who runs the Zellous Hope Project, took immediate action.

"We had some extra funds, so we went ahead and bought tablets," said Zellous. "It was a no brainer."

The foundation donated six tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots. VA staff set up the hotspots, which run off an AT&T server and are not connected to a government network.  Zellous said she has applied for a grant to buy more tablets.

"Anything we can do for the Veterans, we'll do," she said.

Following on the heels of that donation, five more tablets were donated by the American Legion Auxiliary, Department of Pennsylvania.  Two were provided to chaplains to minister to Veterans; the remaining three were set up on University Drive inpatient units for patient use.

At the suggestion of Pam Hook, a Veterans experience specialist, the health care system obtained permission from the family of Tom J. McCauley to purchase another 11 tablets with donations made in McCauley’s memory.  McCauley, a Veteran, died in 2018.

Staff from various departments helped set up the tablets and Wi-Fi at University Drive, including social workers, patient advocates and information technology experts.

Voluntary Service Director David Difuccia supported the project at the CLC and made sure that each unit in the CLC has its own tablet and hotspot. Veterans take turns making video calls with their families.

Staff on both campuses disinfect the tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots between users for safety.

With the help of a how-to video produced at VA Pittsburgh, Veterans were quick to learn how to use the tablets to safely keep in touch with family, said Difuccia.

"It's really a great thing for the Veterans because their families can see them and not just get a telephone call from their loved one saying, 'I'm fine,'" said Difuccia. "Our Veterans are just thrilled to be able to do this."

To learn more about Voluntary Service at VA Pittsburgh, call 412-822-3096.

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