Salisbury VA staff brings taste of home to veteran residents

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 8, 2013

When Dr. Mark Heuser asks the veterans how everything tastes, a resounding “good” echoes around the table as forks scrape plates to scoop up the morsels of syrup-laden pancakes and bacon — scraping that continues until the plates are empty.
Heuser, who serves as the chief of Geriatrics and Extended Care at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center, says while he didn’t start the pancake breakfast, he and his staff “try to keep a good thing going.”
Every Monday and Wednesday morning, the griddles are brought out to the immaculate dining room, a room — I might add — that makes you feel like you could be in a five-star hotel restaurant. Tin-stamped tiles adorn the ceiling over the wooden floors with inlaid tile. While the silverware isn’t fancy and the plates are simple ceramic, they are presented with a manner befitting our nation’s heroes.
“Normally we cook the bacon first, and we let the smell get the veterans to the breakfast table,” Heuser tells me as he turns on the griddle, but the first veteran, Harry Troop, shows up ready for breakfast before Heuser can even get the bacon on.
As I greet Mr. Troop, an Army veteran I’ve had the pleasure of meeting before, Heuser asks me to grab a cup and “get the coffee flowing.” Before I know it, I’ve been put to work.
Harry prefers his coffee with cream and two sugars, and while I came to write a story and take some pictures, it was an honor to — literally — serve Mr. Troop.
As the bacon starts to sizzle, more veterans arrive for the bi-weekly breakfast. Wednesday menu is typically pancakes, bacon and fresh fruit, but Heuser tells me “the guys really like the fruit mixed in the pancakes, not on top.”
The staff tell me that the Monday menu, often cooked up by Sam Fox from the pharmacy, is more of a Southern-style breakfast with eggs, grits, biscuits and sausage.
“Part of the cultural transformation of the Community Living Center is good eating and socialization through eating,” says Heuser. “To foster that (idea) and support us, the food services department has been working to bring more choices and more home-style cooking to the veterans.”
This particular morning the fresh fruit is replaced with chocolate chips for a special treat.
The bi-weekly breakfast was started more than a few years ago by Richard Turner, a social worker in the emergency department and Sam Warlick, a volunteer at the Salisbury VAMC. While Turner and Warlick have moved on to other adventures, the breakfast tradition thankfully continues.
While stirring up coffee for another veteran, a dapper young man in white lab coat and a pink-striped bow-tie kneels down to talk with Mr. Troop.
Jonathan Pierce, a medical student from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Blacksburg, Va. has come to assist with breakfast — above and beyond his normal duties, according to Heuser.
Pierce, who started his rotation in the Salisbury VAMC geriatrics department only a week ago, shakes his head in disagreement at the statement.
“I enjoy coming,” he says as he explains to me the difference between an M.D. (medical doctor) and a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) and how the pre-residency experience rotations work, “I’m trying to take part in everything they have to offer.”
As the third-year VCOM student continues, he tells me the story of his grandfather, a WWII veteran. “(He) had three battle stars, and one was for Normandy.”
“This has been a great rotation — working with the generation that our community at large sometimes forgets about,” says Pierce.
Pierce, however, like all the staff present, is there because he wants to be. Staff like Harold Morgan from housekeeping, Shawntraven Johnson, a nursing assistant, and Dr. David Pfohl, a new geriatrician at Salisbury, make the breakfasts a success. In fact, many of the Medical Center’s departments come to volunteer at this ritualistic breakfast: a bonding over food, service and fellowship.
As breakfast wraps up, the veterans are full of compliments.
“Better than the normal breakfast,” Ernest Bankhead tells me. Bankhead, an Army veteran, continues, “pancakes right off the stove — that’s gonna be better!”
Irvin Morgan, a Navy veteran, jokes with Troop, “I feel like I can cancel lunch!”
“And lunch tomorrow,” Troop shoots back.
As Heuser walks by, Troop made sure to compliment him. “You’re a good cook!”
“The secret,” says Heuser as he leans closer to me, “is a little bit of vanilla.”