(Editor’s Note: This article is part of Virginia Gay Hospital’s bi-annual publication, “Thrive” Spring/Summer 2017 issue. The 0nline version can be found at https://myvgh.org/thrive/)
While Henry Van Eschen’s troop ship zig-zagged its way across the Pacific to dodge enemy submarines, his brother Fred was flying Navy planes from bases in the Caribbean, and Henry’s brother Warren was co-piloting B-17s over Nazi controlled territory. Warren’s plane exploded on a bomb run over Berlin and he lost a leg as he was blown free of the plane. Parachuting into France, he was quickly captured and spent the remainder of the war in a German P.O.W. camp.
Such was America in 1942, filled with millions of mothers and fathers worrying about sons and daughters fighting all over the world. The Van Eschens of rural Ackley were lucky – their three boys came home from WW II. More than 400,000 sons and daughters wouldn’t.
Now being cared for by the staff of Virginia Gay Hospital’s Nursing and Rehabilitation facility, the story of Henry’s life includes the service to his country, teaching science in the New Hartford High School, and serving as K-12 Principal in New Hartford while he still taught classes. Henry was also a coach, and one of his baseball players was a young boy named Chuck Grassley, now referred to as Senator Grassley. Henry left teaching behind in 1963 when he and his wife Dolores moved to Vinton. It was in Vinton where they raised their family and Henry enjoyed many years at Eden Mutual Insurance until his retirement in 1991.
Henry began sharing some of his stories with the start of his service in World War II. “There were 7,000 of us soldiers on the ship when we left San Francisco,” Henry explains. “Our ship was an Italian luxury liner that had been converted into a troop carrier. It was fast, but it still took a long time to reach Australia because we zig-zagged across the Pacific to make it more difficult for Japanese submarines to hit us with their torpedoes.”
Henry served in a medical unit in Burma, (what is now Myanmar), providing medical services to Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese. Just traveling through India and what is now Bangladesh on the way to Burma was quite an experience for an Iowa boy.
“After reaching Bombay, India, on Christmas Day, one month after leaving San Francisco, my unit was put on a train for the trip to Burma. It took quite a while to get across India because the Indian railway didn’t have a standard rail gauge,” says Henry, “so we would ride for a distance on a train, and then have to get off and change to a train with a different gauge track for another leg of the trip. We did that over and over again.”
“In Burma, the big guns were behind us, shooting over our heads toward the enemy,” Henry recalls, “and we would carry our wounded on bamboo stretchers to our field hospital. They received front-line medical care and then hopefully, they would live to be transported to a larger hospital. Most of our patients were Chinese, though we treated Africans as well as the Americans known as Merrill’s Marauders.”
The “Marauders” were an all-volunteer American force of nearly 3,000 soldiers who engaged in deep penetration raids behind the Japanese lines in Burma and China.
At the end of the war, safely back on U.S. soil, the Army gave Henry some money to get home, but it wasn’t enough to get all the way. Henry began hitchhiking in Kansas, finally arriving home with skin so dark from the Burma sun that his mom didn’t recognize him.
Henry attended Iowa State Teachers College (now UNI) in Cedar Falls on the G.I. Bill and graduated in 1950. He also received an M.A. degree in Administration from Colorado State College in 1954.
It was while in Cedar Falls that he met Dolores Salz. After they married the couple moved to New Hartford when Henry got a job there as a teacher.
Henry is rightfully proud of his service to our nation, but it isn’t a stretch to say that Henry has very fond memories and takes great pride in his years as a teacher. Among his treasured belongings is a 1963 New Hartford High School yearbook that was dedicated to Henry.
“I loved teaching,” says Henry, “and I would have been very happy to keep teaching but it was pretty much impossible to raise a family on what a teacher made at that time.”
What Henry loved about teaching were the relationships he had with his students. In a commemorative book celebrating the 50th year reunion of the class of 1960, student after student names Henry as their favorite teacher. One of many examples in the book was a comment from a student who later became a professor at ISU’s college of Veterinary Medicine. She wrote, ‘My favorite teacher was Henry Van Eschen, because he believed in the goodness of youth and the well-being of all his students, and the value of education. He has shaped us to become happy, useful, and productive citizens for the rest of our lives.’
“When we were growing up dad was always encasing some insect or another in acrylic so we could inspect the entire thing close-up,” says Peggy, “he never stopped being in love with science or teaching.”
Like most teachers at that time, Henry had summer work. He followed the path of tornadoes and windstorms as an adjuster for Grinnell Mutual Insurance. It was through an acquaintance at Grinnell Mutual that he learned about an opportunity at Eden Mutual Insurance in Vinton.
Vinton became home to Henry, Dolores and their five children in 1963; Peggy, Kathy, Marie, Tom and Jolene would grow up there. Henry’s work with Eden Mutual was focused mostly on insuring farms and farm buildings and he especially enjoyed the opportunity to be his own boss.
Dolores still lives at their home a short distance across the golf course from Henry’s room at Virginia Gay, and with the help of Peggy and their son Tom, she visits him every day.
Striving for Excellence: Virginia Gay Nursing & Rehab is Best-In-Class in a total of 11 Categories
Henry Van Eschen currently resides at Virginia Gay Nursing & Rehab. The facility is lead by director Jessica Henkle, RN-BC and her award-winning staff. Earlier this year it was announced that the facility had once again received quality awards in 11 categories of care from independent survey company, Pinnacle Quality Insight. Those awards included: Admission Process, Cleanliness, Communication from Facility, Individual Needs, Laundry Service, Nursing Care, Overall Customer Experience, Overall Satisfaction, Recommend to Others, Response to Problems, and Safety and Security.
“There were 14 Iowa care facilities receiving awards from Pinnacle Quality Insight,” explains Jess, “and only one other facility received awards in 11 categories. The average number of awards received by a facility was four.”
Pinnacle is an independent company conducting surveys of VGH Nursing and Rehab patients and their loved ones. The surveys are anonymous and are conducted over the phone by trained Pinnacle staff members. Pinnacle conducts over 150,000 phone surveys each year and works with more than 2,300 care providers in all 50 US states, Canada and Puerto Rico.
“Delivering high-quality customer experience in a skilled nursing facility is uniquely challenging,” says Jess. “Implementing new procedures, changes in staff members and scheduling, and doctors making changes to treatment plans can immediately change the care someone receives. That’s why we pay close attention to our Pinnacle survey results as they come in each month, along with the annual awards.”
Pinnacle samples and delivers data monthly allowing Virginia Gay Nursing and Rehab to remain constantly focused on the experiences of patients and loved ones and to quickly respond when problems arise. Not only are respondents to the surveys asked what they’ve experienced, but if they give a negative score, survey personnel ask why the negative score was given so facility directors know how to improve their team’s performance.
“The quality of care we provide patients is consistently reflected in the high number of customer satisfaction awards from Pinnacle over a period of many years,” Jess says, “and the quality of our care is also reflected through other independent quality measurements, like those shown for nursing facilities on medicare.gov. The reasons we achieve such a high level of quality is that we don’t just react to problems, we solve them and we improve processes so issues don’t arise again. We can do that because we have a solid, dedicated staff.”
In response to the survey results, Mike Riege, Virginia Gay Hospital Administrator said, “We are extremely pleased with the professionalism and the care provided by Jessica and her staff. They do an outstanding job of delivering the same high standard of care that we expect from every department and staff member at Virginia Gay.”