OSWEGO COUNTY – Those who drive for the DAV and have done so for years, through every kind of weather and through the pandemic, for those Disabled American Veterans who need help in getting to the healthcare services they deserve, those drivers, those men and women and their local organization now need help themselves to carry on. They are getting old. Their vans are already old. Their financial resources are low, and their numbers are dwindling.
Missy Parkhurst is their Oswego County coordinator. She arranges the vets’ rides to either the Syracuse VA or the Oswego Outpatient Clinic, making sure there’s a driver, and if not, becoming one herself.
With too few drivers as is, COVID only made matters worse. A van that can hold nine can now only take three vets at a time, according to COVID protocols, one in each of the van’s three rows of seats. Each trip takes up hours of a driver’s day. The appointments are all scheduled for mornings. The driver waits until all are complete, then drives the vets home. And that’s it for the day. Three vets served.
The drivers are completely volunteer. Parkhurst accommodates their personal schedules as best she can. Some can only drive certain days. Some head south in the winter for months. Some, after years of service, finally feel they must retire. And so their numbers fall.
Many of the vets served have no other way of getting to their medical appointments. They’re not rich. They can’t afford a cab, and throughout the county there’s often no bus. Parkhurst and the six drivers that remain are doing all they can, but it has become a struggle. More than money, more than equipment, Parkhurst says they need drivers. Here, in her words, is the story of their situation.
“Technically, we have eight (drivers),” she said, “but two of them right now are out with medical issues. One is having a knee replaced, and another has another issue. So, basically, I’m going to say six that are active right at this moment. We can run up to nine runs a week. In the past, we used to have about 15 or 16 drivers.”
Some preferred to only drive every other week, she said, but “they’ve stepped up because of the COVID situation, because we’ve been so desperate. My husband’s run two or three times a week sometimes, maybe a couple runs to Syracuse and then pick up one of the runs in Oswego.
“You’ve got people out, you’ve got people go on vacation. Right now, probably, if we had a dozen drivers, which is twice what we have right now, we’d be in pretty good shape really.
“One of the vans is parked in Oswego, the clinic van, the smaller van that goes to the Oswego clinic, the Outpatient Clinic. They just recently moved. It was in the plaza by Lowe’s on 104. They just moved to where the old Herb Philipson’s was, in the Ollie’s plaza.”
It’s just for vets.
Aside from Oswego, the vets are driven to the Syracuse VA Medical Center.
“The VA Medical Center’s much larger (than the Oswego Outpatient Clinic). The Outpatient Clinic is more your primary care visits, lab work, and they do some mental health.”
There are 14 outlying areas that all fall under the Syracuse umbrella.
“We have the same rules to follow. The drivers have the same criteria that they have to meet, but as far as our schedules, those are up to us. Some of the areas might only run a couple of days a week, depending on how many drivers they have.”
So, the patients have to get appointments for those days.
“Pretty much,” Parkhurst continued. “Some of the guys can get other rides. I think they just prefer to use us. Every area works a little bit differently as far as how many days they operate.
“The van that goes to Syracuse is a nine-passenger van. Prior to COVID, we would take up to eight people at a time to Syracuse, and they have to have appointments between 8:00 and 11:30, possibly noon at the latest. So, everybody gets picked up, everybody goes up there for the first patient’s appointment. And then, when everybody’s done, then they get another trip back. The driver’s in the waiting room until everybody’s ready to go home. That’s why we ask for morning appointments, because you can’t be tied up all day. And in the wintertime, by the time you pick up seven or eight people, and somebody’s got to be up to Syracuse by 8:00, our drivers are starting at 5:30. That’s not counting getting from their house to the van. The van should be back in place and parked by 2:00 in the afternoon. The one that goes to Syracuse is kept at the county building in Fulton. The other one, right now, is kept at the Elk’s Club in Oswego.
“COVID has changed things quite a bit where right now, we’re still going with a maximum of three people in the van to Syracuse, because there’s three rows of seats, and the theory is that you can space yourself out.
“Everybody has to wear a mask. We try to social distance as much as we can. Can’t eat or drink in the van any more. Can’t have coffee like you used to. They put up some kind of a plastic barrier behind the driver. They spray the vans down with disinfectant every day after they get out of them. I think we’ve been pretty fortunate actually that that guys and gals stepped up to keep driving.”
Through COVID, the VA “tried to minimize people going up to the VA if they absolutely don’t have to. That’s with all healthcare. They did try to minimize in-person visits.
“They (vets) call up, they give me their information and when their appointment is, and then I call them back to confirm whether or not we can accommodate a ride for them.
“The vans have close to 200,000 miles on them,” she continued. “One has 120,000 miles on it, but it’s 12 years old. The funding (for repairs) comes through some kind of grant through the national DAV. We’ve been trying to come up with some resources to try to get new vans. If an organization or private person can come up with about $22,000, then they can get matching grants. And that also comes from national somehow. So, you’re not really paying the entire price of the van. We’re just struggling. We’re not even worried about that right now. We just kind of keep plugging along. We are running into a problem because the vans are getting old, and it’s a lot of money to keep fixing them.”
And there are other challenges to face.
“One of the big problems we have,” Parkhurst said, “is the requirements are so difficult to be able to drive, and the reason behind that is we’re also considered uncompensated employees. So, we have to meet the same employment and physical that regular VA employees have to have. We have to have our physicals through employee health at the VA. We do have to meet the same stringent qualifications that anybody else does that’s being employed by the VA.”
Those qualifications and requirements include annual driver training, a physical, fingerprinting, a background check, a regular driver’s license, information from their primary care physician with any medical issues noted, a COVID card, COVID vaccination, an annual flu shot, motor vehicle insurance (on their personal vehicle, just to verify they are insurable), and childhood vaccination records.
Though through the wonder of legal mumbo-jumbo, DAV’s drivers are considered “uncompensated employees” and must meet the requirements of regular paid employees, in reality all the drivers are volunteers. They aren’t allowed to be paid, “because,” Parkhurst said, “we are considered volunteers. That’s the way it operates. It’s a voluntary organization.”
Parkhurst said she used to be able to schedule drivers and vets months in advance. Now, with so few drivers, “I send out an email, and I say, ‘these are the runs that I need for next week. Who can cover it?’
“We are only able to transport veterans who are able to get in and out of the van by themselves unassisted,” Parkhurst explained. “And if they have to have oxygen, it has to be the small bags or small tanks. We can’t do wheeled oxygen. We can’t do people in wheelchairs.”
But one of the things Parkhurst and the DAV certainly can do is keep track of the group’s statistics.
“In 2018, our drivers worked roughly 1,400 hours,” she said. “They drove a little over 23,000 miles. Total trips were 223, and total veterans transported was 727. (This does not mean 727 individuals. The same individual can be counted numerous times.) They’re counting the number of veterans that we’re taking. It averages out to three-and-a-half people per trip. In 2019, it was a little bit more, almost 1,500 hours worked, almost 26,000 miles driven, about 757 veterans and 247 trips. So, we’re pretty consistent. Even in 2020 with COVID, 860 hours worked, 15,000 miles driven, 466 veterans transported, and 172 trips. That was true of the worst of COVID, when we were shut down. And last year, 1440 hours worked, 25,000 miles, 739 transported, 310 trips. And we’re on track this year so far in the first three months, we’re right around there. We’ve driven over 5,000 miles, 235 veterans transported, 68 total trips, 325 hours. In the past couple of years we’re doing it with half the people we had in 2018. So, a lot of credit goes to the guys who are doing it.”
Her involvement in DAV started over six years ago with nagging, as she put it, her retired husband to drive. And that eventually led to her becoming the organization’s local coordinator. She also fills in as a driver when she has to.
Parkhurst said many of the vets are very appreciative of the service that provides them with rides to their healthcare. Some of them, Parkhurst said, “really have no other way to get there and really are dependent on the transportation. They can’t afford a cab.”
Although Parkhurst notifies each driver of whom he or she has to pick up on any given day, she said it’s up to the individual driver to plan his or her route to do so.
“As long as you can pass a physical” you can drive, Parkhurst said. There is no age limit. “For the most part, as long as you’re healthy, and you can pass the physical, and you can see, then you’re good to go.”
Their number one need is drivers. More than anything else, what they need is six more drivers. Volunteers do not make any commitment on how long they’ll remain with DAV.
The DAV phone number is 315-729-7634. That’s Parkhurst’s desk at home. You can leave her a message 24/7. Missy Parkhurst will call you back. She will work things around to accommodate your schedule.
Their farthest driver from Oswego lives in Pennelville. They had another a few years ago who drove to Oswego from Pulaski to pick up the van and drive the vets.
“We need the drivers,” she said. “If some organization wants to fund raise and help pay for a van, that would be wonderful. But, the biggest thing right now is the drivers.”