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VA nurse, finalist for national award, exemplifies compassionate

Victor Fagan, an LPN at the primary care

Victor Fagan, an LPN at the primary care clinic of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, leads a patient to an examining room at the hospital. Credit: TNS / Darrell Sapp

PITTSBURGH — To watch nurse Victor Fagan briskly walk a clinic corridor while a veteran with a cane trails him to an exam room, he might seem one of those officious, too-busy health care professionals trying to get patients in and out as quickly as possible.

That would be a misimpression.

Fagan — praised by colleagues and lauded by many of his Veterans Affairs patients — is one of six finalists (from among nearly 200 nominees) for a national award given to a model of how a health care professional should deliver compassionate care. He is the first VA employee to be a top candidate for the Boston-based Schwartz Center’s Compassionate Caregiver of the Year Award, formerly a Boston-area award that has gone national in recent years.

“He’s caring about patients as people,” confirms Claude Chapman of North Versailles, the Army vet with the cane in his right hand. “He enjoys his job, and that’s something you like to see.”

Don’t keep them waiting

Indeed, Fagan, 58, moves fast because there are a lot of patients to see each day at the primary care clinic in the neighborhood of Oakland for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. A team leader among the 12 LPNs in the clinic and who keeps highly caffeinated with coffee, he wants to see as many patients as he can, with each one waiting as short a time as possible for care.

In the 8-by-10-foot combined exam room and office where he takes blood pressure, gives shots, collects blood sugar readings and discusses general health issues, Fagan is all smiles, ears, concern and encouragement.

An Army and Marine veteran himself, who has had numerous health issues unrelated to his service, he saw a succession of vets from the Vietnam War, Middle East conflicts and other service stints on a recent morning. They arrived with a variety of pains, illnesses or need for basic screenings, with Fagan their initial stop on the way to examination by Dr. Aaron Kuntz, a second-year resident at the VA.

None of the eight patients he saw that day was in a plight like the homeless veteran who showed up one morning with his son — a boy with holes in his sneakers. Fagan walked down to the VA canteen and bought new shoes for the child with his own money so he wouldn’t be embarrassed in school.

Many of the eight patients had been in his exam room before and had come to trust his knowledge and appreciate his manner. They endorsed his consideration for the national award, whether as part of the formal application submitted by his VA colleagues or after they heard he was a finalist when they showed up.

“Not only does he know what he’s doing, but his personality is second to none,” said James Beatty, 75, who served in Vietnam. In other medical offices, he said, “sometimes they just want to get you in and out.”

Serving his country came first

Originally from upstate Rochester, Fagan didn’t set out to become a nurse or anything else in health care. He enlisted in the Army out of high school in 1978, serving in intelligence and supply operations. A short stint in the Marines would come later before a medical discharge. He worked in restaurants a number of years until a woman doing hiring for a nursing home in 1989 suggested he had the qualities of a caring certified nursing assistant.

He became a long-term care aide in 1989 and an LPN in 2005, working in New York State for years until being hired by the VA five years ago and transferring to Pittsburgh in 2014. A mother who showed compassion and generosity for everyone she encountered and his own experiences as a patient — much of it care he praised from the VA — helped shape the way Fagan approaches his work today.

“I don’t think anyone else here is any less empathetic than I am to a veteran’s cause. It’s just that if I see something that I can fix, I’m going to try to fix it,” he said. “It’s kind of simple. You have to be human about what’s going on in other people’s lives, otherwise just go home and dig a damned ditch.”

That latter message is what he has been known to tell younger co-workers if he sensed them approaching their jobs mechanically instead of with feeling for those they serve and treat.

Christin Durham, a nurse manager overseeing his work at the primary clinic, said other staff members get the message from watching Fagan — regardless of anything he needs to say — although he also gives colleagues verbal encouragement.

“The love seeps off of him, no matter any frustration,” she said. “He moves others to expand on their own compassion because he leads by example.”

Fagan’s honor could come in November when, at a dinner he will attend in Boston, the Schwartz Center will announce which of its six finalists will be chosen as its compassionate caregiver for 2017.

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