On Friday, March 26, Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital celebrated its 40,000th vaccination given, a tremendous milestone in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since day one, Hines has been at the leading edge of VA's vaccination efforts in Illinois, having delivered the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020, before any other VA in the region. Notably, the 40,000th shot milestone also coincides with the 100th day Hines has been vaccinating our nation's heroes.

"I am in awe of the Hines staff that has consistently collaborated to deliver 40,000 vaccines," said Lynnette McLaughlin, clinical nurse manager.

The vaccination effort has not been without its challenges. Logistics, vaccine supply, training and long hours have made it an all-hands on deck experience, with hundreds of Hines staff contributing to its success.

From nurses, providers and pharmacists, to schedulers, clerks, housekeepers and escorts, the vaccine clinic has touched every corner of Team Hines. In addition to the large outpatient clinic in the auditorium on the Hines main campus, significant outreach has been done with Hines' Community Based Outpatient Clinics, Home Based Primary Care patients, and homeless veterans.

"It feels incredible to look back on the efforts of the staff of Hines, the CBOCs and HBPC to have given 40,000 shots," said Lorry Luscri, Health Promotion Disease Prevention Program Manager and COVID-19 vaccine coordinator. "It has been an amazing journey. We have accomplished so much in a short amount of time."

Dr. Kaitlyn Solola, Sterile Compounding Program Manager, agreed, "Wow, it is awesome to think that we have come so far from vaccinating our first veteran in long-term care and the first employee in December 2020. It takes a lot of planning, team collaboration, talent/expertise from respective areas, and being challenged by executive leadership to meet and even exceed vaccine goals with little vaccine waste."

Despite the long hours, the ability to help veterans return to normalcy has been deeply satisfying for many Hines staff members.

"Each veteran brings their own story when they come to Hines for their vaccine, but one couple still stands out in my mind. One Saturday, I was working in the vaccine clinic, and a couple approached me -- a husband and wife, both veterans -- for their vaccines," Cristine Mabrito, Associate Chief of Patient Administration Service, said.

"They talked to me a few minutes when they checked in how they have done everything together, and they shared they were going to 'stomp out' COVID together by getting vaccinated," she continued. "The wife also shared with me she was a nurse at Hines, so she was proud to return to Hines to get vaccinated. I found a nurse who had a larger vaccinating station, and she administrated vaccines to both the husband and wife while they sat together. I was really moved by their story and their excitement."

Solola recalled, "I got into an elevator with a veteran one morning. I joked about how the elevator would be an express this time as we pressed buttons for higher floors and no one else was there. He laughed but then paused for a second and commented about how impressed he was with the COVID vaccine process. He shared with me that it only took 20 minutes, and he was in and out. It was heartwarming to speak with a veteran about the positives of the process and his overall satisfaction."

With Congress expanding VA's ability to provide vaccines to the country's veteran population, the vaccination work has just begun.

"The new (Act) will bring more veterans and their spouses into VAs across the country," Mabrito said. "This is a unique opportunity to provide great customer service, share by firsthand account how wonderful the VA is, and I look at this as a veteran outreach opportunity to educate veterans on VA Healthcare and potentially provide access for new veterans who may not have known they were eligible for VA services.

"One of the most exciting aspects on increasing access to the vaccine will help our country improve their physical and mental well-being as we all work toward a new normal."

"We are just starting to vaccinate the spouses and some other groups and caregivers, which we've always known has been the next phase. After that, it's hard to predict the future -- we may need ongoing boosters as the virus evolves." Luscri said.

"The one thing I know for sure," Luscri continued, "is that the team is ready to take on whatever challenge comes our way."

For the latest information on Hines VA Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine clinic, go to www.facebook.com/HinesVAHospital .