An archival photo from the 1960s shows a VNA nurse walking down the sidewalk. The association is celebrating its 110th birthday this year.(Courtesy photo)

An archival photo from the 1960s shows a VNA nurse walking down the sidewalk. The association is celebrating its 110th birthday this year.(Courtesy photo)

Close to home: A monthlong series for Hospice and Home Care month

The Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties is celebrating its 110th birthday this year, but president and CEO Judy Peterson says the provider is aging in style.

“We’re not your grandmother’s home health agency,” she said with a smile.

The VNA began with a single nurse, Peterson said, traveling to homes around Vermont to follow up with mothers, children and the elderly.

Now, after more than a century of service, Peterson said staff members are performing procedures and providing a level of care once seen only in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

Together, VNA caregivers log well more than 1 million road miles a year and see a client once every 10 minutes on average, according to Christine Werneke, vice president of marketing and client relations.

Open 365 days a year, the VNA serves more than 5,000 unique individuals, from infants to seniors.

“The VNA would not exist without the dedication of our staff,” Peterson said. “No matter if it’s a holiday, a Friday night, a Sunday afternoon or it’s their birthday, people just continue to be out there caring for our community.”

In the coming weeks, Peterson says that dedication will be especially honored. The VNA is celebrating national Hospice and Home Care month, a time to formally recognize staff work.

Throughout November, The Sun will spotlight the variety of caregiving options the VNA provides, each focusing on one of their three clinical program divisions.

Home health represents the association’s largest service area and includes nursing care, therapies and medical social work. All performed in a client’s house by traveling caregivers, the care can help avoid or delay hospitalization. We’ll ride along with a traveling caregiver to visit clients in Essex and Milton.

Community care is a long-term option for clients. The Adult Day Program, provided at three sites in the county, provides an alternative to institutionalized nursing home care. For this piece, we pay a visit to program staff and participants in Colchester and Essex.

Finally, hospice and palliative care serve patients at the end of life. That help can be provided in home or at the Respite House, recently relocated to Colchester. We’ll spend a day at the Respite House, talking with staff, volunteers and residents.

All three care of these models have the same core goals, Peterson said: improving patient experience, increasing successful outcomes, reducing cost and supporting staff.

(Infographic by Michaela Halnon)

(Infographic by Michaela Halnon)

Because the VNA is an insurance-covered provider, clients must obtain a doctor referral to take advantage of nearly every program, Werneke said. Still, Peterson said they would never turn a client away based on inability to pay.

“We don’t say no; we provide what we call universal access,” Peterson said. “That’s just not true in many other states in the country.”

“The commitment to serve all who need us is really where the VNA story starts,” Werneke added.

That aim is what enticed Jean Harry, a 40-year nursing veteran, to return to the VNA after decades away.

Harry has nursed patients in hospitals, schools, prisons and more. After retiring as UVM Medical Center’s chief nursing officer eight years ago, she accepted a position at the VNA without hesitation.

Now the clinical manager of adult home care, Harry said she is constantly reminded why she was first drawn to the field.

“There are a lot of things we do that are surprising,” Harry said.

In the hospital, nurses might see a patient for an hour. With home and hospice care, Harry said, VNA staff could spend years with the same client. Those hands-on hours create a more personal bond, Harry said, but can also improve medical outcomes.

A VNA nurse might notice a client is having more trouble that usual forming words, for example, a benchmark that would be difficult for an emergency room nurse to assess.

“This VNA is an incredible place,” Harry said. “[The staff] cares about our community. It’s their community. They want to make it better.”