While on duty in Syria in 2017, insurgents routinely shot at U.S. Air Force nurse Damon Toczylowski and other military troops as they transported patients to safety in helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes. Now, years later as a first-year student at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, he remembers the chaos, the stress, the fear - and wants to help other military veterans.
He’s doing that by focusing his thesis for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree on expanding and enhancing the current core competencies used by nursing professionals in VA medical centers to improve overall care rendered to military veterans.
“As we come out of different battles and more soldiers survive because of improvements in medicine, we need to understand how they’ve been affected by war and use that to train healthcare professionals to take better care of veterans after they separate from active duty. They deserve it because they were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice,” says Toczylowski, a retired Air Force Major, RN, MSN, CCRN-CSC/CMC, CCNS, ACNP-C.
That laudable goal earned Toczylowski a scholarship in June 2021 from Jonas Philanthropies, a leading national philanthropic funder of graduate nursing education.
Retired Air Force Major, Damon Toczylowski,
RN, MSN, CCRN-CSC/CMC, CCNS, ACNP-C
"I’m over the moon about it,” says Toczylowski . “I understand how prestigious and big of an honor this is. It’s huge.”
Toczylowski will use evidence from Dr. Marilyn Ray’s “Bureaucratic Care Theory” that found holistic, spiritual, and ethical care can improve their health. The goal is for medical professionals to give veterans extra support by looking at their medical histories, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that may be complicating their health issues today.
About eight million Americans suffer from PTSD, especially war veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Less than half of those soldiers receive treatment for mental health. Damon says that kind of history can play a large role in how nurses treat veterans for their current medical condition.
“If a veteran is having open heart surgery, he or she can react very differently from a non-combatant or someone without active-duty military service having the same procedure. A veteran can wake up disoriented with IC delirium and not know where they are, which can trigger PTSD,” says Toczylowski.
“This would change how medical professionals approach that patient perhaps by using more therapeutic measures, less medication, and holistic interventions.”
He hopes his thesis will improve on the overall understanding of how veterans’ experience and exposures impact their medical history to hopefully improve recovery rates, shorten the length of hospital stays, re-admission, and mortality rates.
Another focus of his thesis is to create veteran health competencies or best practices for nurses that will help create a national certification board for veterans and military health, along with his program director and mentor, retired Air Force Colonel and CU Nursing Professor Mona Pearl Treyball, PhD, RN. Dr. Treyball wants to set up an organization that will certify advanced practicing nurses to specifically take care of veterans.
“This is a specialty area of practice that is different from any other area of nursing. There are special considerations for the veterans, the active duty, and reserve members who are coping with the stresses of serving, of the sacrifices they made, and the visible and invisible injuries from service,” Dr. Mona Pearl Treyball, retired USAF Colonel says. “That’s the job they are called to do. And people step up and do what’s asked of them. The nurses also step up to take care of this population. And that’s very special.”
Toczylowski hopes to continue working with Dr. Treyball on the national board after he graduates in 2023.
“I would love to still be a part of her vision. It would be an honor to see it come to fruition one day.”
His love for the military and health began early. Toczylowski recalls he was always the kid on the block helping other kids if they got hurt or had issues. His mom’s work as a geriatric nurse also inspired him.
“I’d dig into her medical books at night and we’d quiz each other,” he recalls.
In high school, he found he had a passion for communication, science, medicine. One class in 11th grade seems to have sealed his fate – the cadaver lab. Other kids were grossed out. NotToczylowski.
“When we went to the lab, I just knew this was my calling. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I had spent all year learning about human anatomy from the neurological system to the digestive system and this lab put it all together. The cadaver lab is where you learn about the entire human body. I was fascinated and amazed.”
As for the military, while several family members had served, his main motivation to join was to “get out of Iowa and serve my country.” And did he ever.
Toczylowski served 20 years at bases around the world as a hospital corpsman, a Navy and USAF nurse, and an acute care nurse practitioner. The retired major has been awarded three Meritorious Service Medals, an Air Medal, an Air Force Commendation Medal, and several scholarships for clinical excellence.
He works in the Surgical ICU at the Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, CO today while earning his DNP degree.