Dominick R Veteran Volunteer

"He gives as much as any employee in terms of hours. He is kind, thoughtful, giving, respectful and empathetic to all. Dominick is a treasure to all of us."

The patient was an 82-year-old man who had fallen and injured himself. His nurses were concerned that the man, who was anxious and struggling with memory problems, might try to get out of his bed and fall again. When she was brought in to help with this difficult situation, Joanne Arico, Director of Patient Experience at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset, learned that the patient was a veteran of the Korean War and a retired automobile designer, and his favorite car was the Corvette. She immediately thought "I’ve got the perfect guy for him."

Arico texted Dominick Ragno, who had already spent hours volunteering at RWJUH Somerset that day and had gone home. "I’ll be right there," Dominick texted back. A half hour later, he arrived in the man’s room armed with a few car magazines and his natural gift for conversation. The patient was soon at ease. "We clicked over cars," says Dominick, who showed the man photos of his own yellow 1965 Corvette on his phone and visited him daily until his discharge two weeks later. "He just needed a friend."

A friend to fellow veterans 

Dominick, 65, of Piscataway, has been a friend to many military veterans who have been patients at the hospital and their families in his volunteer role with the veterans Engaging Through Service Business Resource Group (VETS BRG) at RWJUH Somerset. Several times a day, he taps on the door of a patient room and says, "Hi, my name is Dominick and I’m a veteran of the Vietnam War. Where did you serve?" In no time, Dominick is swapping stories about tours of duty with the patient and chatting with spouses or other family members. "I make them forget their problems," says Dominick, an outgoing and good-humored man with a fondness for storytelling.

And he has stories, though some are painful to recall. At age 20, Dominick was a door gunner on a helicopter that flew missions over Cambodia and Laos as part of the U.S. Army’s storied 101st Airborne Division. One of his outfit’s main responsibilities was rescuing fellow GIs on the battlefield. "There were a lot of people we couldn’t save, and that has bothered me for most of my life," says Dominick. Nearly a half century later, he seems determined to come to the aid of every retired serviceperson he can.

A grateful patient 

Dominick brings a unique perspective to his role. Not only is he a veteran, but he is also a former RWJUH Somerset patient. He spent five months at the hospital recovering from serious complications following surgery to treat diverticulitis and colitis. "My life was saved there," say Dominick. One day, he told his wife, Liz, "I’d like to dedicate my life to helping others."  For a time, that mostly meant bringing cookies to the nurses at RWJUH Somerset.

Last year, Arico asked Dominick to be the first member of the newly formed Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC), which offers input and advice on improving the patient experience at the hospital. Soon after, Dominick joined VETS  BRG. He brings patients an American flag magnet, which is placed on the communication board in their rooms so that caregivers know they’re veterans. Dominick typically spends an hour or so with each patient he visits, often bringing memorabilia from his army days, including his uniform, Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal.

In addition to his work with PFAC and VETS BRG, Dominick serves on a committee devoted to preventing falls. He solicits donations of books and mag azines for patients, and he helped plant flowers and a tree for the dedication ceremony of a military statue to honor veterans. "He gives as much as any employee in terms of hours," says Arico. "He is kind, thoughtful, giving, respectful and empathetic to all. Dominick is a treasure to all of us. He shares so much of his time, and it comes purely from his heart. We receive countless emails from patients and families he has connected with."

Earlier this year, Dominick spent hours with a veteran of a different kind—a policeman who was a 9/11 first responder who had terminal cancer—and his wife. When the man passed away in March, his wife asked Dominick to serve in the honor guard and speak at his funeral. "I spoke from my heart," says Dominick. "I have seen a lot of death in my life, but I have never taken one that hard. He touched my life."

Honoring Servicepeople

RWJUH Somerset established the Veterans Engaging Through Service Business Resource Group (VETS BRG) in 2017 to honor, aid and give voice to employees and patients who served in the armed forces. The group includes hospital staff members who were in the military or have loved ones who serve. In addition to welcoming new patients who are veterans, the VETS BRG has held clothing drives for vets in need and commemorations on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The group helped dedicate two parking spots on the second floor of the hospital’s parking garage for military veterans.

“Being part of the VETS BRG helps employees feel more engaged and increases employee satisfaction,” says Paula Gutierrez, RWJUH Somerset’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion. “It also improves the patient experience.”

For more information about RWJUH Somerset's VETS BRG, call Paula Gutierrez at: 908.595.2323.