Life stories

A new program documents the lives of local veterans

Dorris Howard, 99, being interviewed by Christina Burr.

Dorris Howard, 99, being interviewed by Christina Burr.

Photo/Luka Starmer

The Veterans Affairs (VA) Sierra Nevada Health Care System, 975 Kirman Ave., is a bustling facility. On any day of the week, men and women from every branch of the military stream in and out of the hospital doors. Their military service has earned them medical treatment from primary care to surgery and specialized health care.

Starting in 2015, Reno’s VA added a new health care service only supported by 40 other VA clinics in the United States. This service is known as “My Life, My Story.” It’s an opportunity for veterans to include their life’s story as part of their medical records. It’s a document that sits among medical diagnoses, test results and medication histories, and it can be accessed by any care provider in the entire VA health system.

“It just gives care providers a better picture of the human being they’re treating,” said Christina Burr, editor of the My Life, My Story program in Reno. “They get to know that person on another level rather than simply asking, ’What’s wrong? What are we trying to fix today?’”

Burr said the program is designed for care providers to learn about where each veteran patient came from, beyond their time in the service. She said it helps care providers understand what’s important for each patient and what they have to look forward to when they recover.

As editor for the program, Burr is a full-time employee of the VA. She and a team of volunteers conduct interviews with veterans asking them about their lives, starting from their place of birth. Interviews usually last about an hour, but sometimes multiple sessions are scheduled to allow veterans to tell more of their personal stories.

The first-person transcripts are edited to include the exact diction of the veteran in order to maintain their way of speaking.

After the narrative is added to the medical record, additional copies are given to the veteran and his/her families, aptly styled as a keepsake with a coversheet and meaningful old photos.

“My kids have always been after me to sit down and write a story,” said Edward Smith, 88, an Army veteran who served from 1948 to 1969. “[My story] never would have come around if it hadn’t been for this program.” Smith was a POW in the Korean War for three years, and continued to serve for decades afterward. He finished his career as an ROTC instructor at Reno High School. He and his family still live in the area.

Dorris Howard is a 99-year-old veteran who participated in the My Life, My Story program in Reno. She was part of the Army Nurse Corps from 1941 to 1945. She was a nurse on the USS Comfort when it was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane during the battle of Okinawa. Many of the doctors and nurses were killed in the attack. Despite her own injuries, she remained on duty that day. She held the hand of an injured man, expecting to go down with the ship. Eventually the Comfort limped back to Guam for emergency repairs.

Howard’s son, Bill, is her primary caretaker. He’s the one to push her wheelchair to appointments at the VA, including her sessions for My Life, My Story.

“Mom had always told me bits and pieces of her story over the years but telling it in sequence to Christina was a first for her,” said Bill Howard. “Having My Life, My Story in her life has led to a wonderful catharsis for her.” Howard says the program has helped release some of his mother’s PTSD burden that she’s carried for 74 years since World War II.

My Life, My Story was developed as a pilot program in 2013 at William S. Middleton Memorial Veteran Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. The first editor was Thor Ringler, a marriage and family therapist with a master’s degree in poetry. He was given the opportunity to begin writing these stories as an innovative approach to patient-centered care. The successful pilot grew into a national program. In addition to curating these veterans’ narratives, Ringler and his team generate trainings and toolkits that allow the program to spread into individual VA health systems across the country, including in Reno. Christina Burr attended a training seminar at the Madison facility in February this year.

Over the life span of this national project, Ringler’s team conducts ongoing, self-reported surveys to medical professionals to better understand the quality of My Life, My Story from the standpoint of the health care providers.

“Based on the feedback we’re getting from providers, they definitely view it as a very helpful program,” said Ringler. “And it’s definitely appreciated by veterans not only for the potential of connecting more with health care, but obviously giving them a story they can share with family and friends.”

Dr. Helena Russell is a geriatrician at the Reno VA. Her job includes visiting many of the elderly veterans at their homes to conduct primary care. She said having My Life, My Story as part of a patient’s chart helps her know who a person is, first and foremost, before she starts looking at types of medical conditions she needs to address.

“I still have a number of World War II veterans that I go out and see,” she said. “I feel like in some cases it can be very therapeutic for people to share their stories and make sure it’s part of who their identity is.”

She says a secondary result of My Life, My Story is that it works against physician burnout in the career field.

“There are tools in place to help you connect and feel like you know why you’re doing your job,” she said. “Human connection is what gives [physicians] that sense of purpose and sense of joy for choosing the practice of medicine.”

Physicians like Dr. Russell can recommend a patient participates in the My Life, My Story program, just as they can recommend having blood work done or other medical tests. If the patient opts in, they head to Christina Burr’s office for an interview. Sometimes Burr will travel to a veteran’s home for interviews as far away as Fallon, Susanville, Lake Almanor or Carson Valley.

Burr is a veteran of the Marine Corps and worked in the Washoe County School District for eight years. She started working at the Reno VA in the Community Living Center when her predecessor, Colonel Kim LaBrie started the local My Life, My Story program. Burr signed on as his volunteer learning to interview and transcribe. She took over the position in October 2017. Her team has since grown to five volunteers.

They said so far they’ve interviewed primarily veterans of World War II and the Korean War first because those veterans might not be able to tell their stories for much longer. However, Burr has interviewed veterans as young as 25.

One volunteer, Mary Luzier said, “You get a lot of cool stories, and I like stories. You get the whole history of the country besides the wars.” Mary’s four brothers and her father were all in the service. “I just want to give back to people who basically wrote a blank check for their country.”

In total, the My Life, My Story program has collected the life stories of over 130 veterans in our area. The following are two of those stories.

Isabel’s story

I was born in New Mexico in March 1918. I am a full-blood Pueblo Indian. My dad farmed corn, wheat, vegetables, fruits and had some cattle, too. My mom worked in the health clinic at the day school there in the pueblo. Day school went from 1st grade to 5th grade. I have two brothers and three sisters.

When I was young, both grandmas were sick. I helped mother take care of them. My mother’s mother put nursing in my mind. I was fixing her bed, fixing her pillow and stuff like that. She said, you will make a good little nurse. That did it.

I went to day school there in the pueblo up to fourth grade. Then I went to a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe called Saint Catherine’s Indian School. When I was in day school, we spoke Indian and Spanish. Just before I finished my day school, teachers started having classes to learn English words, and how to use them when speaking English. At Saint Catherine’s we spoke Indian, Spanish and English.

I finished high school, and I thought about it again. Grandma put that in my head, that I would make a good little nurse, and that’s what happened.

I worked at the Indian hospital till August. Then I registered at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe and Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Albuquerque where they were training nurses. It took three years to get my diploma.

I took the state boards and became an RN, and I did some private nursing. Shortly after that, I went to work at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Gallup, New Mexico and later, at the Navajo Agency Hospital on the Navajo reservation.

My two brothers went in the Army. There was an Army nurse that knew my brothers. She would tell me a lot of things about the Army. So, I decided, “Well I’m going to go to the Army and become a nurse.”

In 1942, I decided to join the service, the Army Nurse Corps. I joined the Army because they didn’t wear black stockings and the Navy nurses did. Everybody laughed and teased me about the stockings. I liked the pretty white caps, dresses, stockings and shoes. My cape was navy with a red lining.

I went to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to the station hospital. I was a 2nd lieutenant. There were four wards. We worked hard, like no one’s business. Four wards full of those poor guys. I got the guys out of surgery and then did everything—IVs, bandaging, shots.

I also taught some of the young enlisted men to be medics. They had to learn how to take care of the wounded in the field because after their training they were sent overseas. They did a good job. They were good boys, very dependable.

Clark Gable would come to Fort Bliss to visit the wounded. He would also visit with the nurses. Oh, he was yummy. One day, we were sitting, drinking our cokes, and he was smoking. I said, “How come you haven’t asked us to smoke a little bit?” So, he taught me to smoke. Oh, God, my parents, my parents, oh my goodness, it was a sin. He was also a good dancer. The nurses danced with most of those movie stars. They would have parties for the troops, and we were all invited. We would get all excited. Oh, look at the new dresses, but once in awhile we wore our uniforms. We were so proud to dance with all the guys. The one I had a hard time dancing with was John Wayne. He was so big and tall, but I danced with him, and I had a nice time. He was a very nice man, so nice to the nurses. We were so proud, and I love to dance.

There was a time, when I had to take one trip overseas, to France to pick up casualties. First, we flew to New York and did some training. We were shown what to do, what to say, and what not to say. We had to take Italian and German language to understand them and them to understand us. They didn’t speak English. That was hard. We flew at night, so they told us it was France. It was dark, so I don’t know for sure. We had to get there and get back, lickity split. We were busy giving IVs, medications and bandaging. I didn’t like it. It was hard to give the IVs and medications on the plane.

They would say, Tiny, get over here. My nickname was Tiny. In boot camp, I was pulled aside a couple of times a day to drink milkshakes. There were three of us that just couldn’t gain weight.

Working on those poor guys was hard. Most of them were in bad shape. Sometimes it would make you cry. They were in so much pain. I did a lot of hand holding, very much so. Some of those hands were heavy, but I did it, regardless of how big or heavy they were.

Those poor guys, I felt so sorry for them. How much more could we do for them? We just couldn’t do enough. They were in so much pain. We tried hard to comfort them. People just don’t know what those guys went through. You’d have tears in your eyes, seeing them suffer. These flights went back and forth, but I only did one trip. I flew back to Fort Bliss and brought back some of the casualties to the hospital.

I met Ernest when I was working at the Navajo Agency Hospital. He was a baker at that time. He was a very good baker. We kept in contact by writing each other. We saw each other once or twice a year.

I married Ernest in July 1943. He was a pharmacist in the Army. I was relieved from active duty in October 1944 due to a physical disability, temporarily. I was pregnant. At that time, I was the only woman, and only woman officer serving from the pueblo.

My husband stayed in the Army Air Corps and retired from the Air Force after 20 years as a pharmacist. He had a friend here in Reno. So, we came to Reno. We bought this house in Sparks. We have stayed here and made this our home. We have five children, three girls and two boys. I have three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. My family is just great. I’m so proud of them.

When we moved to Reno, I worked at Saint Mary’s Hospital. I worked in the surgery and orthopedic department. I was just the IV nurse, and I was pretty good at hitting the veins. I worked there about three years, I guess. After that, I was a mother at home, and I did some private nursing. I still had three kids at home. Two were off at college.

The age difference between my kids happened because I contracted polio in 1950. My husband and I were told no more kids. So, we waited a bit.

I was also very busy working at my church, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church here in Sparks. My faith is very important to me. We were raising money to build the new church. There were three of us nurses helping raise the money. At night, we got together at the hall to make tamales. We were cracker jack, making them pretty fast. I haven’t made any since the church got built. I’d had enough of that. Oh, golly, I tell ya. We did that for three or four years.

I lost my sight in my left eye in the 1970s. I could do more now if I could see. One of the worst things that happen as you get older, is that things get taken away from you. I used to sew the kid’s clothes and costumes. I was a good seamstress.

In 1985, I joined the American Legion, Dat So La Lee Post 12. I enjoyed the meetings and dinners. I liked helping wherever I could. I am a lifetime member.

In the late 1990, I visited Cambodia, Thailand and Australia with my daughters. I also went to Rome to see the Pope. At age 75, I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a church group.

I don’t nurse anymore. I’m too old for that now. I might still be able to stick a vein, though. I’m 101. Isn’t that nice. I surprised myself. I never realized I would be this old, really. I’m so proud. I’m still on foot, walking and dancing. I had my fun. I did mostly anything and everything. I try to be a positive person.

Ron’s story

I was born in Florida in 1952. I have four brothers and two sisters. We moved to Carson City, Nevada, in 1961, and my mom still lives there. I went to elementary school and high school in Carson City. I found high school boring, but I enjoyed my many after-school jobs: school bus driver, gas station attendant, and a bus boy at the A-frame restaurant in Washoe Valley, called Hagel’s Midway Inn.

I joined the Air Force in 1969, and I did really well—guess I liked what I was learning. I joined the Air Force because it takes brains. The rest take brawn. I went to Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and my first tech school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. I was trained as an aircraft maintenance specialist, reciprocating engine aircraft. I was then sent to Mather Air Force Base in 1972. There I trained and received a certificate as an aircraft maintenance technician on the T-29. I earned and was awarded the Honor Graduate in recognition of superior academic achievement.

Mather Air Force Base was my first duty station. There I worked on the T-29s, a training aircraft. As a crew chief, my job was to keep the planes flying. I was engine run and taxi qualified, and that was a big deal.

My next duty assignment was overseas. Thailand, NKP [Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base], which sits along the Mekong River across from Laos. The Air Force flew combat missions, and my job was to keep the planes—A1 Skyraiders—in the air. We had eight inspectors/crew chiefs, of which I was one. We were each assigned three to four planes. I would go through the pilots log, and then call the mechanics shop, and they would come and fix the problem. The work had to be done that day. The planes were rotated constantly as they flew secret combat missions. I spent six months in NKP, and then on to Cambodia for three months, and finally Vietnam for the last three months. There, I worked on the C-47s, A-1s and QU-22s. These were recon/monitoring and attack aircraft. It was a dirty, dirty job. The opportunity came up for me to go to computer repair school and get cross-trained in a different field. I jumped at it.

So, off I went to Biloxi, Mississippi, to electronic computer systems repairman school. I loved it. It was a lot cleaner, no dust or dirt with computers. I enjoyed learning about the computer systems because it took a lot more thinking.

I graduated in June 1974. After graduation, I was stationed in Duluth, Minnesota, at the International Airport. This is where the National Defense Computer was located. I worked with some very sharp people, and I held a top secret clearance. In September of 1974, I reenlisted. Everything was going my way till … one morning in July, 1975, I was on my way to base riding my new motorcycle. I was hit by an old drunk driver who ran a stop sign. This happened over 40 years ago. I wasn’t expected to live. I was in a coma and suffered three heart attacks before waking up two months to the day. I just woke up. I was really confused, and I didn’t recognize anyone.

I remembered dying and flying through space, then sitting in a room. I could see Earth. God walked in with a big book and looked in the book and said, “Nope, not your time, go back.” I was flying through space again. I came back down to Earth and landed by my hospital bed, and my spirit hovered over my body. I remember looking at myself. I looked like I was sleeping, and then my spirit was sucked back in. I was told I woke up two months later. I think God sent me back to help take care of my mom. I just knew it wasn’t my time, and I really wanted to help my mom. I was glad that I went up there; there is a God.

I was sent to Travis Air Force Base for a diagnosis and discharge from the Air Force. I was a staff sergeant—E5.

Once diagnosed, I was sent to Palo Alto Veterans Hospital for rehabilitation. While there, I was in several activities, including the San Jose Special Olympics, in which I won three blue ribbons, and the Veteran’s Day parade. I started community college at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. I was taking life skill classes. I lived at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hospital till 1979.

In 1979, I moved home to Carson City and lived in several assisted care facilities. I lived with a lady named Wilma for a while. She was member of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). She’s the one who got me involved with the DAV along with my mom. Through the DAV, I was in parades, helped with fundraisers, and I was the junior vice commander of the DAV, Chapter 7, 1980-1982. I am a lifetime member.

I moved to Reno in 1985. I became a volunteer here at Reno VA hospital. I was a runner. I would roll in my wheelchair all over the hospital, delivering files to the file rooms and wards and specimens to the labs. I rolled all over the place. I had 3,485 volunteer hours in three years, and I received my Voluntary Service Award in April 1988.

I moved back to Carson City and lived at Sierra Place. I was there nine years. I had some health problems, so my sister, Linda, brought me here to the Reno VA to the emergency room. After some time upstairs they moved me into the Community Living Center (CLC). I have been living here since March 2014.

From the time I was hit by the drunk driver, I have been in a wheelchair, but that hasn’t stopped me from doing the things I enjoy. I love watching game shows on TV and playing board games. We were a big board game family. Scrabble was on one my favorites. I play dominos with DJ, a volunteer here in the CLC. I go bowling on Tuesdays at the Grand Sierra Resort. My score is in the 100s. In 2010, I bowled a perfect game of 300. I also play Bingo on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and am always ready to win. In 2015, I became a member of the Sparks Elks club. I stay busy.

After everything that’s happened, the war was the safest place to be.