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US secretary of Veterans Affairs builds relationship with UCLA School of Nursing

United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough visited the UCLA School of Nursing on Tuesday and was greeted by Dean Lin Zhan and Chancellor Gene Block. (Courtesy of Aaron Hilf/UCLA School of Nursing)

By Eva Danesh

May 2, 2023 11:47 p.m.

Denis McDonough, the United States secretary of Veterans Affairs, visited the UCLA School of Nursing on Tuesday for a discussion with faculty and students.

McDonough’s visit served to strengthen the partnership between UCLA and the VA at the start of Nurses Month and emphasize career opportunities in VA to student nurses and student nurse veterans.

“We have a really important partnership with the School of Nursing here at UCLA,” McDonough said in an interview. “We had a really good candid discussion (and) identified places where maybe we can even expand this important partnership.”

Lin Zhan, dean of the School of Nursing, said McDonough discussed establishing equitable pay for nurses at VA, overcoming structural barriers to support of nurses and allocating more budget and resources to nursing staff.

She added that McDonough shared a message from President Joe Biden that nurses not only save patients’ lives but also improve the quality of their lives, making them a core foundation of veterans’ health.

“This visit is to put a significant emphasis on the health of veterans, and in order to really improve the health of veterans, we need a nursing workforce,” Zhan said.

UCLA students regularly serve at mobile clinics, train in nursing residency programs and conduct research at the nearby West Los Angeles VA Medical Center and other VA sites, Zhan added.

Amanda Reyes, manager of nursing education at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said she is glad UCLA’s efforts were recognized during the visit and was impressed to see many veteran students and faculty members in attendance.

Secretary McDonough had a roundtable discussion with university faculty and students to discuss the growing partnership between UCLA and VA. (Courtesy of Aaron Hilf, UCLA School of Nursing)
Secretary McDonough had a roundtable discussion with university faculty and students to discuss the growing partnership between UCLA and VA. (Courtesy of Aaron Hilf/UCLA School of Nursing)

One of VA’s top priorities is to hire more nurses amid a nationwide nursing shortage. It has set a five-year goal to hire nearly 80,000 new nurses, VA deputy director of public affairs Christy Hagen said in an emailed statement.

VA is also the single largest employer of nursing personnel in the nation, with more than 113,000 nurses, Hagen added in the statement.

McDonough said that through partnerships with organizations such as the School of Nursing, VA is working to advance new cohorts of nurses as it invests in nurses already in the workforce.

“We both want to create new nurses, and we want to retain the great ones that we have,” McDonough said. “That’s going to require us to pay them what they’re worth, and they’re worth their weight in gold.”

Dr. Jasmine Ahdout Berookim, a primary care physician at VA, said she is proud of the work she is able to do alongside her team of nurses and VA staff. Berookim, an alumnus of UCLA College and David Geffen School of Medicine, added that having the ability to serve a community of people who have sacrificed for the country feels meaningful.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to practice primary care, which itself is super gratifying, but even more so extra gratifying with the population of veterans that I get to work with,” Berookim said. “Being able to help them while at the same time practice medicine makes being a doctor even that much more special.”

McDonough said his mother was an emergency department nurse while raising him and his 10 siblings, providing him with a unique understanding of the demands of this profession.

Zhan said the School of Nursing, as well as national and academic nursing organizations, also acknowledge the high rates of burnout in the health care field and are making well-being a top priority.

She said the school aims to educate students not only about medical knowledge and skills but also how to build resilience and take care of themselves throughout their careers, adding that people must first know how to take care of themselves before they can take care of others.

Michael Simmons, the chief nurse executive of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said while VA offers many benefits including education enrichment, residency programs and other matriculation opportunities within the national system, relationships among staff and with the population of patients are what help with retention.

“Aside from the benefits, I think that it’s another microcosm of support that us nurses create within the system,” Simmons said. “It’s those relationships that help us when times are tough and when you think it’s a better opportunity to go down the street.”

Reyes, whose husband is a veteran, first entered VA for her clinical rotation during her training and never left. She said working with veterans is particularly impactful.

“I do think that there is a different feeling you have when you are serving the nation’s heroes,” Reyes said. “You’re part of their story and that culture and that mission.”

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Eva Danesh
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