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Vaccine Clinics: Keeping holiday traditions alive

A man is sitting at  table with a nurse writing down his information.
Veteran Ralph Stiegler provides information to his nurse prior to getting his COVID-19 booster at one of the many South Texas VA Saturday Vaccination clinics. He wanted to be fully vaccinated because his wife has a compromised immune system.

For many families, the holidays are about traditions. Get togethers, open houses and visiting grandma. Since 2020, a new tradition seems to be navigating all the aforementioned activities safely. For staff of the South Texas VA, their new tradition is supporting Veterans in that endeavor with Saturday vaccination clinics

Once again in November, to appeal to a diverse demographic, they partnered with the Texas A&M University San Antonio and held their vaccination at the Patriot Casa on campus.

The TAMUSA campus is a good drive from the Audie L. Murphy Hospital, but it works well for Navy Veteran James Ramzinski who has received his entire series of vaccinations there.

“As soon as they announced that they were giving the booster, the VA sent me a text and I came right away,” Ramzinski said.

“I was waiting for it to come out, when it did, I came in,” Ramzinski added. “I had been shot so many times in the arms in the service, I might as well get this one.”

Many of the Veterans traveled from significant distances and because of that, doubled up, getting vaccine boosters and flu shots which were both provided at the clinic.

Ramzinski was one of those that doubled up. He said it takes him awhile to get from his rural home in West Texas, but the campus clinic is still more convenient than going downtown or to the Audie Campus.

Ramzinski said that rural location keeps him safe because they can isolate pretty well. “We laid low, you know we didn’t even have Thanksgiving [in 2020] and didn’t even have a Christmas get together,” Ramzinski said. “We were really hunkered down.”

That all changed for the matriarch as he took the lead, the family following suit and they were able to gather together this holiday season and keep their traditions intact.

“My mother-in-law is 95 years old. Because of her, I want to make sure that I don’t pass it around and also to my family you know I got grandkids,” Ramzinski said.

Ed and Mary Jane Dort not only had personal reasons to get their booster, but professional reasons as well.

“We are traveling all over the country number one, so we’re on planes, we’re in airports, we’re meeting with Veterans and meeting with chiefs of staffs,” Mary Jane said. “We want to make sure we are keeping up our end of the vaccine to keep everybody safe.”

Just moving into the Southwest Texas area right before the pandemic hit, the couple spends a lot of time exploring what San Antonio has to offer, and that made them a bit nervous. “When you go out now, to restaurants and shopping, you never see the masks,” Ed said. His concern is justified because Mary Jane is in a higher-risk category with her severe allergies and previous heart surgery.

Ralph Stiegler who also lives in a rural community, was overwhelmed initially when the pandemic began and didn’t know what to make of all the information that flooded in. “With all the publicity that’s going on, you don’t know what the right thing and the wrong thing to do is,” Stiegler said. “At 77 you know I just didn’t want to take any chances.”

The VA simplified it for Ralph and many other senior Veterans by inviting them to the Saturday clinics through text message.

The clinics are marketed and staffed on Saturdays to make it convenient for them. That’s OK for the employees that man these clinics, many of them Veterans and many stretched thin from the fight against COVID-19 which is going on its second year. “Whenever there is a need, I volunteer for it,” Sergio Garcia said. Garcia, who is a former Army medic, said the extra shift is just part of the job.

It wasn’t just Veterans that came by the Patriot Casa for their boosters. A Veteran’s spouse, Fiona Wiggins, came in for her booster which was made possible by the SAVE Lives Act of 2021.

She wanted to get vaccinated for her job at an allergy and asthma clinic, but also did not want to miss her holiday traditions because of COVID.

“Our doctor wanted all of us vaccinated. If we got it, we would be OK, but we can harm our patients,” Wiggins said. “We didn’t want to harm anybody we were supposed to help.”

She said it is tough with her patients to determine what was cedar allergies and what was COVID symptoms but knew COVID was around her clinic.

Their family traditions were put on hold, primarily coming from her 75-year-old father, who initially resisted the vaccine. Now the entire family including her children are vaccinated, and they planned their annual ski trip to Utah.

“I took my 13 and my 15-year-old to the Alamodome and got them vaccinated so they could see their grandfather more often,” Wiggins said.

Knowing that they are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19, and helping families keep those traditions alive, nurse manager Stacey Greenberg said it is just the norm to have an “all hands-on deck” attitude from the nurses. “I just like my job,” Greenberg said. “After 23 years as a nurse at South Texas, I know I’m in the right place.”

Rest assured, the staff at the South Texas VA will continue work tirelessly to ensure COVID-19 will not replace Santa with social distancing, or merriment with masks.

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