Going where the work is: A day in the life of a designer at VA

Martha Wilkes, an Accessibility Strategist and Designer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, was able to “go where the work is” to understand how her team could create digital tools to better support COVID-19 vaccine delivery to Veterans.

I’m a designer at USDS and I’ve been working at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Chief Technology Officer since September 2019. When lockdown started in March 2020, I went back home to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to work remotely. One of the silver linings of being away from DC is that I am now only 20 minutes down the road from the excellent Durham VA Medical Center (VAMC).

One chilly Saturday this February, I visited Durham VAMC to observe their mass vaccination weekend event. Since my teammates and I have been creating various COVID-related digital products (Digital Pre-Entry Screener, Chatbot, VANotify, and Virtual Check-In Feature), we felt like it was a perfect time for me to observe what a vaccination event is really like on the ground. How we might create more digital tools to help make the process smoother?

Welcome sign at the VAMC Clinic in Durham, NC.

One of the great things about hanging out at a VAMC is that everyone is happy to strike up a conversation. I chatted with a few Veterans who drove three to four hours from the NC coast to get their vaccines. Durham VAMC had already begun distributing vaccines to the 65+ cohort, while their local public health departments were still in the earlier cohorts due to a more limited supply.

Martha in the VAMC waiting room.

The volunteers and staff were so friendly and welcoming. When the 3:00pm rush hit, they sprung into action to quickly alleviate a bottleneck and keep Veterans socially distanced while waiting in line. In the post-vaccine observation area, some staff members took the opportunity to make sure Veterans had up-to-date contact information on file.

Vaccination record cards provided to Veteran’s who had received their COVID-19 vaccine.

I observed a lot of very happy Veterans who were thrilled to finally get their vaccine! Many were in and out in less than 30 minutes, including the mandatory 15 minute post-vaccine observation time. Some walk-ins were fine with a short wait, knowing the VAMC staff would do their best to squeeze them in before the end of the day. It was an upbeat atmosphere, and it was incredibly uplifting to see real, tangible progress in overcoming the pandemic. And on the way out of the VAMC, Veterans would stick their stickers on the sign!

Oh cool, there’s the poster I designed for the coronavirus research clinical trials!

When I joined USDS, I learned that one of the values is go where the work is. For me, that Saturday in February, it was a trip 20 minutes down the road to the VAMC. I just passed my 2-year USDS anniversary, and I continue to be challenged and invigorated by the work we do. I can’t imagine any other job I’d want to have right now, making a difference in Veterans’ lives alongside incredible teammates who inspire me daily with their devotion to our shared mission.

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