GREAT FALLS, Mont. - To say the pandemic has changed our lives would be an understatement.  It has changed the way we learn, interact, and work, especially for those in the healthcare field. 

We caught up with Montana VA nurse manager for the northeast region, Ray Tierney, to see what exactly goes into his job and how he is protecting veterans around the Treasure State. 

A typical day at the clinic is already very busy. He says keeping the operations going without COVID-19 was a task in and of itself. 

"This year has been a game changer," Tierney said. 

He arrives at the clinic an hour and a half before it opens, getting daily operations started before many of us are even out of bed. 

"I'm an early bird, I get up at, like, 5 a.m.," he said.

Throughout the day he makes sure his team has everything they need, and it's not just in Great Falls. 

Tierney is over clinics in Great Falls, Havre, Lewistown, Glasgow and Plentywood.

"To walk into one clinic is one thing, but to walk into a whole region is a completely different thing because you have clinics all over the state that he has to travel to. Not to mention that he helps other clinics like Bozeman and Anaconda and all these other clinics... So, he's been pretty instrumental in trying to keep this cohesiveness and trying to get patients seen," PACT RN Mary Toren said. 

Tierney tells us the pandemic brought light to a continuing problem - the lack of good technology in rural Montana.

"We live in a rural state, so sometimes connections via phone/computers are not ideal. So, there were a lot of hiccups to begin with, but we worked through those challenges, and it worked very well. And that helped us bring in the patients that really needed to be seen in person to ensure their safety and ours," Tierney said.

And it's not just our nation's heroes he cares about. He says his staff is like a second family. 

"If that means I will be checking in for a provider for a few hours, then that's what I'm going to do," Tierney said. 

"You know, he sets the tone for the rest of us. He's set a positive pace for us to follow, and to sometimes catch up to him. Absolutely, he's raised the bar for all of us," Jason Gleason, a nurse practitioner, said. 

Tierney says the leadership at the VA has been helpful in making sure his team has everything they need. 

But even through the thick of the pandemic, he still faced a major challenge - staffing through quarantine. 

"Sometimes, at times, it was like a jigsaw puzzle trying to put together to figure out who's going to staff where to ensure we stayed open and took care of our veterans," he said. 

Not only did he make sure his clinics were staffed, he also made it a priority to help other clinics around the state.

"Where staff was needed I was going to send people," Tierney said.

When this clinic opened a year ago, Ray said he had a great team; this past year has really brought them closer together. 

"He strikes a passion in all of us to provide exceptional care," Gleason said. 

While COVID-19 appears to be slowing down, Tierney's work is ramping up as he continues to help his teams across the Treasure State. 

"I think there's been, in general, a sigh of relief that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Staff are vaccinated or getting vaccinated, veterans are vaccinated. So, I think no one is putting their guard down, but we also feel a little relief that we're getting the community at large protected," Tierney said.

We asked him why he does what he does.

I think pretty much everyone that gets into healthcare has that heart - they want to help people, right? And that's... we all feel the same way," Tierney said.  

Joee Taylor, Reporter/MMJ

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