Jean Jones Gurga ’92 finds joy in working with veterans in her role at the VA—even after COVID-19 has entered the picture.
By Sarah Ventre
Jean Jones Gurga ’92 has never shied away from a demanding job. But lately, it’s gotten even more intense.
“This is probably the first non-COVID conversation I’ve had in a month. So it’s actually good to talk to you,” Gurga said over a recent Zoom interview.
Then she added, “But we can still talk about COVID if you want to.”
Gurga was talking with me from her office in Prescott, Arizona, late on a Sunday afternoon. Her workload has only increased since COVID-19 began spreading. That’s because she’s the interim medical center director of the Northern Arizona Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Healthcare System, which is akin to being the CEO in the private sector.
Nationwide, the VA provides financial, medical, and employment assistance, and the Veterans Health Administration serves about 9.7 million veterans. In her role, Gurga is responsible for an area that covers 65,000 square miles across a rugged, almost entirely rural landscape. And part of her job is to oversee the care of veterans far from city centers who are affected by the coronavirus.
“If you take out Phoenix, but you draw a line across the state [of Arizona], that entire territory north of that line besides Phoenix is Northern Arizona VA,” she said. “We have outpatient clinics in Kingman and Lake Havasu, which are very rural. And from what I hear, a lot of the veterans out there like to live off the grid.”
Her coverage area also includes the Grand Canyon, vast stretches of tribal land, and four clinics on the Navajo and Hopi Nations. The Navajo Nation in particular has been hit extraordinarily hard by the virus, and the situation is compounded by lack of access to resources and geographic isolation. As of press time, the Navajo Nation had the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the country.
It’s part of Gurga’s job to think about how to reach these veterans, and she worries about their higher likelihood of contracting the virus. “They have a lot of chronic health conditions too, and that’s who’s most vulnerable. . . those people with pre-existing chronic conditions,” she said. She’s also mobilized nurses from other parts of Arizona to assist.
So, she is utilizing her resources to assist in an area where many are relying on much smaller health care centers. That means coordinating between state, local, and tribal agencies, elected officials, and community organizations to address pressing health issues, including the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of veterans who are affected by everything from coronavirus to depression, to unemployment, to homelessness. Her responsibilities have grown a lot since taking her first position with the VA in 1996.
“If you would’ve told me 30 years ago that I’d be talking to a congressional representative or a senator and talking to them about veterans’ initiatives and veterans’ concerns and now, COVID-19 and the Native American population, I would have probably laughed. I would have never thought that I would be doing something like this. But here I am,” she said.
Gurga got her bachelor’s degree in business economics from Mills, and said that she began developing her leadership skills during her time as treasurer of the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC). “I would consider myself a pretty shy, reserved person,” Gurga said. But over her two-year tenure on the board, she became more confident: “There’s just all that kind of slow incremental learning, stretching yourself just enough to challenge but not overwhelm yourself.”
She had always been interested in healthcare, and wanted to bring her knowledge of business into the healthcare field. When she learned about occupational therapy, it was a natural fit.
“Occupational therapy, in my mind, is not just focused on mobility or exercise, but really looks at the whole person,” Gurga said. “For example, if you have a stroke, a [physical therapist] may teach you how to walk again…but an occupational therapist is going to teach you how to dress, how to take a shower, how to cook for yourself.”
After getting her master’s in occupational therapy at Tufts University, Gurga received a VA Health Professional Scholarship. It was her time in that program that cemented her passion for working with vets.
“Serving veterans has to be the best mission in the whole world. I mean, who could deny that?” Gurga said. “I have a smile on my face as I’m talking about it. And it’s so hard to describe.”
Gurga recognizes that veterans have a unique set of needs and challenges that are difficult to meet, which is why she says the VA is the best place for them to receive care. “Your basic primary care provider just does not have the understanding of military culture or the understanding of the complex care needs of veterans,” she said. “I really do feel that the VA is the best place to take care of veterans. And then when you work with veterans, it’s just that sense of commitment.”
The unique set of needs that veterans have extends far beyond just physical care. Addressing mental health needs like depression, PTSD, and high suicide rates is key. According to the VA, the suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than non-veterans, which means the VA has to create better systems to address these urgent issues.
“The VA has one of the most comprehensive mental health and behavioral health programs in the country,” Gurga said. “The type of behavioral health services we offer is unheard of in the private sector.”
Before Gurga came to the Northern Arizona VA, she was the associate director at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System in Southern California, which received recognition for creating an innovative approach to mental health interventions.
The idea is that veterans best understand what their peers are going through and what they may have experienced, so they’re better equipped to assist. So a trained VA officer along with a social worker (all of whom are veterans themselves) will respond to calls for help, rather than just let law enforcement handle it. And they go to the veteran needing assistance, rather than asking the vet to come to a VA center when they’re in the middle of a crisis. The program is done in conjunction with Los Angeles County.
It’s so unique and was so well received that according to an article in the Washington Post last year, a similar program is in the works at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center, and the VA in Spokane, Washington, is interested as well.
“It’s the only one of its kind in VA right now,” Gurga said.
And even in her new position, mental health remains an important focus area for Gurga. “In my role as a CEO now, I’m not providing care on a daily basis, but it’s my job as the mental health leadership to make sure I have the resources and the staffing in place to implement these programs,” she said.
For Gurga, in the end, it’s all about the people. What drew her to occupational therapy still drives her in her CEO role: helping vets, and working with others who are passionate about doing the same. “I’ve learned and grown from my mentors within the VA and the people that I get to know. Like it’s weird, like 24 years later, I’m the mentor, right?” Gurga reflected. “And I just think of how I can help people learn, grow, and develop in their careers. And especially women. When I became an executive, I realized how other women in the organization looked up to me.”
One of Gurga’s tasks is to help honor Vietnam veterans who never received a homecoming. Recently, she attended a ceremony in the far reaches of northern Arizona near the Utah border. There, she gave each veteran a pin, and read an executive order from the president saying that in the coming years, the VA will continue to do this work to recognize the service of these vets.
“We drove from the Navajo Nation over to Page, Arizona, and we got into Page that night around 6:15. I was at the VFW, and we were supposed to start our ceremony at 6:30, and the parking lot was full. And I’m like, holy cow. And so I go in and there are probably 25 veterans. And then on top of that, with their families, there were probably at least 50 to 60 people in
the room, including the mayor of Page,” Gurga said.
“You want to talk about emotional: Each veteran comes up and you shake their hand and you give them the pin and then you literally say, ‘Welcome home.’ Because these veterans were not welcomed home.”
It might be these projects that keep Gurga grounded in her job, which requires her to take on big, systemic tasks, while at the same time remembering the individuals who are affected.
Gurga said she refers often to the Mills College motto, “Remember who you are and what you represent.”
“I’ve used this as my personal mantra for 30 years,” said Gurga. “Whenever I’ve had a big public presentation, an interview, etc., I use this motto to center myself and get ready for the challenge.”
And there are plenty of challenges on the horizon, but Gurga finds ways to stay motivated. “It’s just a very complex, demanding job and you can’t do it all yourself,” she said.
“One of the things that I always hear about my leadership style, and I honestly don’t know where this comes from, is just how calm I am and how focused I am,” she added. “And I think, especially in times of crisis, just being able to be that calm leader who can hold everyone together and then still have goals and objectives and push an organization forward… those
are some of the highlights that I know that I’ll always reflect back on.”