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From combat in Afghanistan to COVID-19 in California, he comforts the hurt and dying

Nathan Solares, third from left, with his military buddies in January, 2013. Solares served eight years in the U.S. Navy, as a corpsman. His service included time in Afghanistan, treating service members wounded in combat and Afghan civilians, sometimes mass casualties.

NATHAN SOLARES

By THERESA WALKER | The Orange County Register | Published: April 26, 2021

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SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — He's only 31, but Nathan Solares has already tended the wounded and dying from two wars.

The first war, in Afghanistan, helped to prepare him for the other, the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The end of both now appears to be within sight. On April 14, President Joe Biden said U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending 20 years of war. On April 23, the Biden administration said 200 million COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered in the United States, diminishing the toll of the deadly virus.

But amid it all, Solares' work grinds on. As a hospice nurse, it's his job to smooth the passage from life for people dying from COVID-19 and other causes, along with educating and comforting the families they leave behind.

He seems made for it.

As a young corpsman, the U.S. Navy's designation for medics, Solares handled military and civilian casualties while stationed at Kandahar Airfield, a NATO base in Afghanistan for international troops and Americans from all branches of the Armed Forces.

Today, Solares works the overnight shift for Cadence Hospice in Orange. His shifts typically run 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., with the latter half spent as "night runner," meaning he's on call to go to patients in crisis and handle family emergencies.

A licensed vocational nurse, Solares started working for the hospice service about a year ago, not long after COVID-19 started to take victims in skyrocketing numbers.

As he did in Afghanistan, Solares has served his hospice patients without fear. Only now, instead of desert-toned fatigues and a helmet, he suits up in layers of protective gear — face mask and gown — over nurse's scrubs, including a blue-and-pink set the stocky Solares wears.

The father of two young boys shrugs off any notion of bravery. With the pandemic in full swing, he explained that when he started, there was an acute need for hospice nurses.

"I felt like someone has got to do it."

Diving in

Solares volunteers to work with COVID-19 patients.

In hospice, nurses handle much of the hands-on work with the patients, carrying out physician's orders for a few hours — or for a few months — before that patient's death. At Cadence, a crew of 20 nurses see patients in a variety of settings; board and care homes, assisted living centers, skilled-nursing facilities — and patients' homes.

If a patient has COVID-19, the nurse can be exposed.

"I always knew he was a very compassionate and amazing nurse," said Solares' supervisor, Chantique Hohner.

"The fact he was willing to go do that took me by surprise ... (It) made me proud to be his supervisor."

The urge to serve has motivated Solares since he was a kid. Family members, he said, influenced him.

Solares, born in Los Angeles before moving to Anaheim, is of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent and once thought about becoming an immigration lawyer. Instead, his older brother inspired him to join the military. And his mother, a certified nursing assistant, made him think about nursing.

Initially, Solares wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps and join the Marine Corps. But military rules prevented the siblings from serving in the same branch, he said, so, Solares chose to be a Navy corpsman, knowing it would mean taking care of Marines as well as sailors.

He spent four years in ROTC while at Anaheim High and signed his Navy contract in his junior year, at 17. But he couldn't serve until he turned 18.

"That was my motivation to graduate."

He would spend eight years in the service, from July 2008 to July 2016. His year in Afghanistan ignited his passion to pursue nursing once he came back home. A tattoo on his right shin — the winged hospital corpsman insignia with the date 2012-2013 — memorializes that period of his life.

He volunteered for that deployment too.

Kandahar is in the southern part of Afghanistan, where the Navy first fired cruise missiles in October 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In the decades that have followed, Kandahar has been the site of intense encounters with the Taliban. As recently as early April, the Taliban targeted the air field in a rocket attack.

During his year in Afghanistan, Solares' medical unit sometimes conducted forays "outside the wire" — beyond the protected air field — to teach Afghani soldiers about medical procedures that they could use to take care of their own. Other times, following bombings and other encounters, he treated U.S. service members, Afghani soldiers and the Taliban.

He saw a steady stream of locals who were injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or gunshots.

"Every day we were taking care of people — kids, adults, teens."

There were incidents of mass casualties, too. He remembers an IED attack at the air field on Oct. 13, 2012, a birthday anniversary for the Navy. Three big vehicles rushed the gates and one got through. The explosion that followed initially injured more than 20 people — some who lost limbs, some who suffered shrapnel wounds and some who later died.

Solares was never injured, physically, in combat. But his knees are wrecked, he said, from his time in the service, and his back gives him trouble. He's also struggled with nightmares and depression. And, he added, there was a lot of partying when he first came home.

Like many veterans, he initially hesitated to seek help through Veterans Affairs, but eventually did.

"I felt like, 'I don't need this. I can get over it on my own.' Then I felt like I wasn't able to. So, I reached out.'"

Veteran nurse

Health care has been a constant in Solares' life, though at times it has different paths. His initial stateside assignment in the military was in Texas, where he handled records and assisted in care at a Navy dental clinic. He did similar work in California, three years later, when he was discharged. He eventually began thinking of a career and took college classes to become a licensed vocational nurse.

He's worked with the Veterans Administration, handling patient charts for service members' disability claims. He also worked at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, transporting patients, including auto accident survivors.

"That definitely reminded me of Afghanistan."

In August, 2019, he graduated from Concorde Career Colleges and started working in home health care. He was hired by Cadence a year ago this month.

His personal life has had setbacks: The marriage to the mother of his first son fell apart. So did his relationship with the mother of his second child. Solares likes to say he is now "single as a Pringle."

He lives alone in an apartment in Anaheim, but spends as much time as he can with his boys, 8 and 2, when he is not focused on his work as a hospice nurse or at his second, part-time job, providing health care services to people who can't leave their homes. He even has a third side gig, drawing blood and overseeing doses for clinical trials.

He'll listen to classical music to clear his mind. Beethoven is a favorite. He'll re-watch favorite movies, "Gifted Hands" about the life of Ben Carson, or "Men of Honor," starring Cuba Gooding Jr. in the real-life role of Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear, the Navy's first African-American master diver.

Like other health care workers and first responders, Solares and his co-workers haven't backed away from COVID-19, even though the exposure is scary.

About 15% of the people treated by Cadence are veterans. Mary Christie, the company's community liaison, said Solares is particularly adept at working with those patients.

"He does connect with our military guys really fast."

Last words

Even when patients are unresponsive, Solares will engage family members in discussing a loved one's military service, aware that such acknowledgment can be a last salute to the patient and a comfort to their relatives.

No matter who the patient is, or what stage of dying they may be in, Solares encourages loved ones to share their favorite stories with the patients. Solares says the words often are understood, a response he can track by observing vital signs and subtle facial expressions. It's true, he added, whether the loved one is in the room or speaking on FaceTime, through a phone Solares holds up to the patient.

But, sometimes, there is no relative, and no story; just Solares at their bedside as they die.

"I would just tell them 'It's OK, that they weren't alone and that everyone loved them for who they were, and that they would be missed." He added that he tells them "not to fight it."

"We try to make them feel cared for," he said.

To Solares, the work he's done during the pandemic — and his role as a hospice nurse — isn't so different from when he was in the Navy and he offered comfort to the wounded.

"They would look at you for hope and say, 'Tell me I'm going to be OK.'"

But, sometimes, comfort meant telling someone it was OK to let go.

"Most of the time, you know when they're ready. They would say, 'I want to go home,' to heaven, to make their peace."

With COVID-19 patients, he said, the situation is often different. They aren't talking. There's no body language or facial expression that lets him know they were ready to go.

"They would breath really fast and then it would stop."

The experience from the past year only reinforces his desire to keep working as a hospice nurse. He likes the pace of it; he likes the teamwork.

"At the end of the day," Solares said, sounding very much like the military veteran he is, "you've got to be mission oriented."

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