A 'shot of hope'

Courtesy photoFormer Army Sgt. Heriberto Irizarry, 72, of Lawrence, receives the 10,000th Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 5 administered at the VA Bedford Hospital from nurse Isabella Netto.

As seniors citizens from Haverhill and across the Merrimack Valley struggle to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations, military veterans 50 and older who receive health care at the VA Hospital in Bedford have another option.

As the first in the nation to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at a such a clinic, the VA Bedford Hospital gave its first shot to 96-year-old WWII veteran Margaret Klessens on Dec. 14 — and hasn’t stopped since, according to Kat Bailey, the hospital’s chief of public affairs.

As of last week, the hospital had dispensed 11,605 vaccines to staff and patients, including those in the its long-term care facility, Bailey said.

Former Army Sergeant Heriberto Irizarry, 72, of Lawrence was the lucky 10,000th vaccine recipient recently, Bailey said. Nurse Isabella Netto gave Irizarry his shot.

“I’ve overheard veterans in the clinic saying, ‘I’m not getting a vaccination, I’m getting a shot of hope,’” Bailey said. “(Patients have) called our nurses ‘angels of hope.’ This (a vaccine) is not a cure, but it’s nice for our nurses to know that they’re part of the solution and that folks are starting to have hope. Hope is a very powerful thing.”

Vaccinations are being administered in Bedford at Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, with veterans able to receive a free shuttle to the hospital from satellite clinics located in Haverhill, Gloucester and Lynn.

Shuttle service is provided twice daily from the satellite locations free of charge and seating is available by calling 781-687-2000, Ext. 2505. Bailey said veterans should let the hospital know they will be coming to Bedford using the shuttle when booking their appointment.

While Bedford has been the only location vaccines can be obtained, Bailey said the VA is working on scheduling one-day vaccination clinics in Lynn and Haverhill after a successful clinic was recently held in Gloucester.

According to Bailey, VA staff consider themselves fortunate to be able to inoculate veterans younger than the 75-plus age group currently being vaccinated statewide through Gov. Charlie Baker’s Phase 2.

“We’re just going to keep putting vaccines in arms as we get them. The goal of the VA is to offer the vaccine to anyone who wants it as long as they’re enrolled in VA healthcare until we run out,” said Bailey, adding that the hospital receives Pfizer doses of the vaccine weekly.

Initially, the hospital sent letters to eligible patients letting them know a vaccine was coming, but without an incoming phone line available to schedule appointments once they received vaccines, timing became of the essence. At first, patients who received the letters were forced to call the main operator to inquire about a vaccine.

“While we continue to receive it (the vaccine), we’re not going to question the good fortune,” Bailey said. “We’re just blessed to receive it and we’re going to continue to share the wealth.”

Army veteran Richard Romano traveled to Bedford from Groveland to receive his first vaccination shot Jan. 26. He said the process could not have been smoother.

“I have been watching the news with these long lines, but I wasn’t there more than 25 minutes, had the shot and was out the door. It was a well-oiled machine,” Romano, 74, said. “I had my second shot scheduled before I left.”

A Bronze Star recipient, Romano said he’s “never had a bad experience” with the VA, also applauding the care he’s received at its newly renovated Summer Street location in Haverhill.

“We’re running into all kinds of problems with people trying to get shots and appointments,'' he said. "I went down to the VA and was absolutely amazed. They’re really taking care of the veterans.''

Romano is not the only one singing the VA’s praises.

Ralph Basiliere, 54, chairman of Haverhill’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, echoes the message of hope Bailey said rang through the Bedford hallways.

“When I count my blessings, VA healthcare tops my list,'' said Basiliere, a former Marine. "Getting vaccinated gives me hope that I’ll be able to see my adult children soon. During the worst health crisis in a hundred years, VA healthcare has demonstrated why they’re the nation’s very best.”

This is how the clinic works:

To schedule a vaccination, veterans receiving VA care may call 781-687-4000 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Appointments are booked seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

The vaccination is also available to veterans who enroll as new VA healthcare members. Information is available on the eligibility section of va.gov.

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