New van for veterans helps with health care

It’s not an ambulance, fire truck or other rescue vehicle.

But to its new occupants, the plain white eight-passenger van is a “life saver.”

Tuesday, the Whidbey Veteran’s Resource Center in Langley completed its first test drive of a long-needed service helping veterans access medical care.

In a van provided by Island Transit, six veterans were driven to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in downtown Seattle where they scattered to various clinics before being shuttled back home.

“I successfully went to three appointments today,” Terri Marie Desrosiers said afterward. “I do not drive on the other side. Before I had to take Island Transit to the ferry, then the train and bus to get to the hospital. This is a lifesaver.”

The service is free to veterans and relies on trained volunteer drivers. Island County has the highest number of veterans per capita in the state; estimates range from 14,000 to 17,000.

The Whidbey Veteran’s Resource Center is the second nonprofit organization benefiting from RideLink, a new partnership program launched by Island Transit.

Island Senior Resources was the first to receive a van and another nonprofit is organizing drivers, said Julie Lloyd of Island Transit who oversees the RideLink program. People wanting to drive RideLink vans must pass a series of reviews and training.

“There are six vans in total,” Lloyd said. “Four vans are available for groups while two of the vans are dedicated service loaners.”

The program is exclusive to nonprofits and aimed at helping Whidbey Island residents get to social service programs, activities and appointments.

But figuring out how to get six people to various medical appointments on time and in a sprawling hospital is different than coordinating a drive to an event.

“It’s like mission planning,” said Dana Sawyers, coordinator for the Whidbey Veteran’s Resource Center. “We have to know who needs to go to which clinic and figure out the logistics, planning and timing.”

The test drive went smoothly and rather quickly; the group left at 7 a.m., caught the 7:30 a.m. ferry and were back by 12:45 p.m.

There’s also another challenge.

“It’s a big mysterious place and it’s very intimidating,” Gene Berg said of the crowded regional medical center that serves veterans from Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Berg is trained as a driver, dubbed the “pilot,” and he also volunteers as a “co-pilot” who navigates for the driver and then for the vets inside the confusing hospital.

It can be particularly jarring for older vets and those with disabilities, including hearing loss, to navigate all the hallways and get to referred services, such as radiology, blood tests and prosthetics, Sawyers added.

That’s why all participants need to know the plan, she said, and name a rally point. (Cell phones don’t work inside.)

“I’ve gotten lost in there,” admitted Kat Ersch, a veteran who has driven other vets to VA appointments for years just to help out.

“Now, we’ll be able to take more people and once the word gets out about the van, it will really help family members,” Ersch said. “They won’t have to say things like, ‘Oh, I can’t take off work to help grandpa get to the doctor.’”

Vans are kept at the locations of the organizations and used as needed. Island Transit takes care of preventative maintenance while the nonprofit groups pay for fuel and day-to-day upkeep.

Depending on the number of miles driven, costs could range from $8,000 to $16,000 for the Veteran’s Resource Center trips, Sawyers estimated.

“That covers the cost of fuel, ferry and insurance,” she said, “so we are continually fundraising.”

Sawyers expects the South Whidbey service will expand to more than once a week. Oak Harbor’s Disabled American Veterans office also offers transportation to health care services, primarily for North Whidbey residents.

“The two programs, while separate, really work together to support all of Whidbey Island, since access to transportation is a big part of access to VA health care,” Sawyers said.

“We’re starting with one day a week but we anticipate broadening it,” she said. “The resource center has been talking about the possibility of a van for vets for two years.”

Call Whidbey Veteran’s Resource Center at 360-320-9008 to sign-up for the van service. Those wanting to volunteer or help fund the service should also call. The center is located in the back of South Whidbey Community Center, the former Langley Middle School, 723 Camano Ave., Room 403, Building C.

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