Marcy Polk, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, understands the military, but she’s always been an outsider looking in. Her dad and sister are veterans. Her dad served in the Navy in the Vietnam War era but did not see combat, and later became a firefighter along with her brother. Her sister was in the Army for 15 years and now works for the VA.
Like her sister, Polk works at the Portland VA as the director of quality safety and value, and before that, she was the chief of organization, development, and education at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA in Aurora. She joined the VA in 2018, after working as a nurse at a hospital in Broomfield.
“I chose to pursue this degree – and my motivation – was because when I came into the VA healthcare system, despite coming from a military family background, I recognized my lack of comprehension of VA culture,” she says. “Coming to the VA, you don’t get this profound education about the benefits and veterans, you hit the ground running so that was a big force for me to get into this program.”
The program is the first one of its kind in the country. It focuses on things like veteran and military service member culture, family dynamics, the consequences of war, and how to make changes in federal healthcare delivery systems.
“Even though we treat veterans and they’ve received care, some things don’t automatically click for us,” she says. “We don’t automatically learn about environmental exposures, we don’t learn about medical conditions, and we don’t learn about how diverse the veteran population is. So that was a huge driver for me to contribute in a meaningful way to my community while serving veterans.”
She says she was looking to further her career and education, and heard about CU Nursing’s program through a co-worker at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA.
“I talked to (co-director of the program) Mona Pearl Treyball, RN, CNS, CCRN-K, FAAN, and I was blown away with the program,” Polk says. “It sparked my interest and I knew from the moment I talked to Mona this was for me.”
First Students in the VMHC Program
This December marks the VMHC Program’s first graduating class. Polk started the program in the fall of 2021. It typically takes three years, but Polk is finishing it in two by taking additional classes every semester – and admits that sometimes balancing life, work, and school has been difficult. She also navigated across the country from the Denver area to Portland.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” she says. “In Portland, I’m also learning a new healthcare system and learning a new staff. But this program has taught me a lot about myself. This is an online program, and since I also earned my bachelor’s online, I’ve been fortunate as a non-traditional student that the online learning has helped me balance everything.”
Polk describes the program as eye-opening and unique. She says it’s been a collaborative environment and a partnership between engaging in the veteran community and incorporating community partners into their classes.
“We’re the first class, but we also want to strengthen the next group of students coming into the program and make sure we evolve this program so it only gets better over time,” she says. “We’re really dedicated to the overall well-being of these veterans.”
Challenges Facing Veterans
Polk says her father has not applied for benefits with the VA. He’s often told her, "There are so many other veterans more deserving than me”. She says a lot of veterans are silent about their healthcare benefits and don’t know what is available to them.
“The more educated we are the better healthcare we can provide them,” she says. “If we’re not advocating for them and not speaking up for them, then they’re the ones doing it for themselves and sometimes it’s a struggle.”
Polk says the VA system needs to do a better job of fostering a supportive community network for the overall well-being of veterans. That includes things like creating a sense of purpose, healthcare equity, and helping them re-enter civilian life.
“I tell (my dad) all veterans deserve care, and there’s a spectrum of what veterans can and cannot get at the VA,” she says. “Every single veteran earned an opportunity to get benefits, and they deserve a chance to get those benefits, healthcare needs, and services.”
Committed to Helping Veterans
Polk is the only nurse in her family. She originally thought she would become a paramedic because she really wanted to care for people. She went into nursing and fell in love with the profession.
As for the future – Polk is following her dad and sister’s military service. She’s waiting to hear back from the Navy to find out if she’s been accepted as a reservist nurse. Polk also plans to continue working with veterans at the VA.
“I think we can all do our part, and I think working at the VA is my part. Whether it’s my family member or the community, I feel like this is my little piece and I’m thankful I can do this every day,” she says. “I knew once I started at the VA and started this program, I knew the VA was where I wanted to be. The veterans have my heart.”