Bay Pines Volunteer Has Special Connection to VA and Veterans - Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
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Bay Pines Volunteer Has Special Connection to VA and Veterans

February 5, 2015

Click here to read the feature story version of this article with photos

Every one of the more than 1,800 volunteers across the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System has a unique story to share about why they commit so much of their time to help Veterans.  Some do it because they too are Veterans and want to give back to their brothers and sisters. Others do it out of respect for the men and women who honorably served the nation, or to stay busy after retirement or fulfill a community service requirement for a high school, college or university program.

Whatever the reason, most, if not all volunteers will say they have a special connection to VA, and most importantly, feel honored and privileged to serve heroes accessing VA health care services across southwest Florida.

For Emily Murtha, a 76-year-old patient transport volunteer at the healthcare system’s C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, Fla., her connection to VA came in 1997 after being reunited with her high school sweetheart, Don, after more than 41 years apart.

Originally from a small town in northeast Pennsylvania, Emily (then Emily Kovacs) met Don Murtha when they were both teenagers.  The two dated through high school but were separated shortly after Don decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

“As hard as it was, I had to let him go,” Emily said reflecting on her teenage years. “We were so young, and I really didn’t see how we could make it work with him going away to the Air Force.”

As the two went their separate ways to start their own lives, they never forgot about the time they spent together, Emily explained, and never fathomed the thought of one day being reunited.

A Special Phone Call

Saturday, August 23, 1997 started as a regular day for Emily.  She was preparing for her routine trip to church.  Albeit a little delayed, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  

Then…the phone rang.

“When I picked up the phone, a man was on the other end – it was Donny,” she said. “I was lost for words. He told me he had been searching for me for the last 30 years.”

Over the next year, their relationship once again flourished and they were married on October 18, 1998 in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

VA Health Care and Volunteerism

Emily described her husband Don as the “ultimate soldier,” and a stern advocate of the military and the VA health care system.   She said he first started using VA for his health care needs at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center shortly after the two were married in 1998.  When Emily retired in 2001, the couple moved to Tampa Bay where Don transferred his care to the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center (known at that time as the Bay Pines VA Medical Center).  

“Because he enjoyed his time in the military and the culture so, it became part of what I enjoyed as well,” she said.  “When he visited the VA hospital, I was always by his side.  We both loved the VA so much – it was very much part of our lives together.”

In April 2005, after 7.5 years together, Don passed away but Emily’s strong sense of connection to VA never diminished.

“After Don left, I thought a lot about how I could still be involved with VA.  We both loved the medical center and the people there so much.  I still very much felt like I was part of the family,” she said.

In January 2008, Emily became a registered volunteer at the medical center two days per week.  She was first assigned to the hospice unit and later transferred to the patient transport office located on the first floor of the facility.  Her current duties include taking calls and fielding web-based escort requests to ensure volunteers are dispatched when Veterans require wheelchair transportation.  She volunteers on Mondays and Wednesdays each week.

“Becoming a volunteer was probably the best thing I’ve done in my life – second to my time with Don, of course,” she said.  “It gives me the opportunity to give back to Veterans and also continue to spend time in a facility that meant so much to Don – to us. When I am here, I very much feel his presence.”

Since becoming a registered volunteer at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, Emily has amassed more than 5,400 hours of service.  Emily, along with other volunteers assigned to the patient transport office, completed 48,219 wheelchair transports in fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013 – Sept. 30, 2014) – a remarkable achievement for a small group of volunteers that do so much but ask for nothing in return.

“There really isn’t a unit of measure for what Emily brings to Veterans and the volunteer program.  You can count the hours she serves but you can never measure the heart,” said Nathan Witt, Chief, VA Voluntary Service, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

“She embodies everything good about VA Voluntary Service and giving back to those who served,” he said.

National Salute to Veteran Patients Week  

On February 8-14, volunteers like Emily, Veterans groups, military personnel, civic organizations, businesses, schools and more will come together to honor Veterans during VA’s annual National Salute to Veteran Patient Week.

The week, largely spearheaded by VA Voluntary Service and registered volunteers, involves a host of special events and activities for Veterans at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center.

Some of the events scheduled for Veterans at medical center include gift and valentine distributions, music and dance performances, community group visits, a cookout and more. The week culminates with a large flower delivery to Veterans admitted to inpatient wards throughout the medical center.

For a full list of scheduled events, click here.

While the National Salute kicks off on Feb. 8, Americans have the chance to show their appreciation to Veterans all year by volunteering their time or donating to VA medical facilities throughout the year. No medical experience is necessary and volunteers are encouraged to share ideas how they would like to give back using their unique skills. To find opportunities at the Bay Pines VAHCS, please visit www.baypines.va.gov/giving or call (727) 398-6661 ext. 15594.