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VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System
NWI mask maker makes Vets happy with free masks
By By Kevin Hynes
Thursday, March 18, 2021OMAHA, Neb. – Barbara P. Johnson/Waltermeyer loves caring for “her” Veterans. That’s why for the past months she has worked in the Omaha VA Medical Center’s COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic, the VA nurse also makes sure each Veteran not only receives his or her much-needed vaccine, they also leave her station with a small gift that will help keep them safe in the still risky COVID-19 world.
“Each Veteran I give a vaccination to also receives a hand-made mask,” said Johnson/Waltermeyer, IACRN, BN, as she showed off dozens of hand-sewn face masks that cover the examination table and nearby sink tabletop. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Johnson/Waltermeyer has been sewing masks out of her home’s basement for members of her family and friends. Mostly, though, the masks are for the Veterans she works with.
As of this week, Johnson/Waltermeyer said, she had made more that 3,600 masks, using a three-ply pattern she downloaded from the CDC website. Many have themes – movies, sporting teams and holidays are among the most popular. The most popular among the Veterans, though, are those that specify the Veteran’s military service.
Johnson/Waltermeyer said the project began during the initial days and weeks following the start of the pandemic in March 2020 as many Veteran face-to-face appointments began to transition to telephone or tele-health sessions. A pain case manager who also specializes in aromatherapy and battlefield acupuncture with the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System’s Whole Health program in Omaha, Johnson/Waltermeyer said she quickly began missing the many daily interactions she had with “her” Veterans.
“I missed all of the one-on-one conversations I had with the Veterans,” she said. “I really missed seeing them every day and getting to know them and what’s going on in their lives. When the pandemic hit, that went away in a lot of aspects.” Johnson/Waltermeyer said those she did get an opportunity to see often left her with an impression about how they were coping with the pandemic’s impacts. Many Veterans, she said, didn’t have proper, well-fitted masks. Most, she said, didn’t know where to get one either. So, Johnson/Waltermeyer began sewing at night in her family room to fill the needs she saw.
“The masks originally started as a way to say thank you to my Veterans,” she said. “I would make them for when I knew they were coming in as a way to say thank you for your service.” Initially, Johnson/Waltermeyer said, she focused on crafting the service-specific masks. She then transitioned into patriotic-themed ones for Veterans Day and the 4th of July. Other holiday-themed masks soon followed. “Once my family saw what I was doing, they started asking me to sew them masks, too. From there it was kind of a snowball effect because when you buy a yard of fabric, it makes 22 masks. When you make one mask for someone, you still have 21 more masks to give away,” she said.
When Johnson/Waltermeyer was assigned to the COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic several weeks ago on a three-month detail, she brought the masks with her. So, now whenever a Veteran visits her vaccination station, there’s a surprise waiting for him or her.
“A lot of the Veterans come in here and they will kind of step back and say, ‘Whoa, look at all of these masks,” Johnson/Waltermeyer said. “I’m like, ‘I’m glad you like them because you get to pick one.’” Johnson/Waltermeyer said the masks help ease the Veterans’ nerves about receiving their shots. Some, she said, are excited to come in and finally receive their vaccinations. Others, she added, are a little more tentative because of the needle. “It makes the experience a little better for them,” she said.
Johnson/Waltermeyer admits she also gets something out of the effort. “I want them to be safe and I want them to know they are cared for,” she said, adding she also frequently gives a mask to an accompanying spouse or caregiver. “You know, it takes a village… and I appreciate everything these spouses and caregivers are doing, too. So, it’s a way to show my appreciation.” Johnson/Waltermeyer the reactions are always special.
“I had one Veterans start to tear up and say, ‘He had never been thanked for his service like that before,’” she said. “Another said he wanted to hug me, but wasn’t sure if he could with the current social distancing rules… he did anyway.”
Jacob Roark was one of the most recent Veterans to receive a mask – actually two – when he visited Johnson/Waltermeyer’s station on March 16. A Navy Veteran who served between 1997 and 2003, Roark was receiving his second inoculation when he received both a Navy-themed mask as well as a St. Patrick’s Day one.
He said the gift was truly meaningful. “It’s very thoughtful of her,” said Roark. “When you see how many masks she has made for Veterans, it really shows that she really cares about them. That means quite a lot.” U.S. Army Veteran Paul Helmer agreed. “When I walked into her room and saw them, I was like ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of masks,” said Helmer, who served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1983-2003. “It was really a great gesture for her to do something like this and give Veterans something extra. It’s really meaningful.” Johnson/Waltermeyer said she expected to continue with her project for the foreseeable future. “My husband asked me the other day whether I had made enough,” she said. “I told him that as long as there is a pandemic going on and there are Veterans who need masks, I’m going to keep sewing them.”