Within 24 hours of getting the phone call, I was standing on a line at Fort Dix waiting to be processed and bussed to New York City. The United States Army took the lead and mobilized reserve forces to help New York City hospitals, overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19, combat this new enemy of humanity. Having this experience on the frontlines, I can easily assure you that this is a war, and we as nurses and doctors are the primary combatants in the fight.
We were assigned to Woodhull Hospital—an inner-city hospital in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It is a “safety net” hospital that serves an economically depressed and multicultural population. Originally built as a prison (which never opened) and then converted into a hospital, the facility is obviously not designed for patient care, but they have made it work. The staff is dedicated and hardworking, and they do their best, but the situation is overwhelming. Long shifts, nonstop admissions, patients intubated and on ventilators, inadequate resources. It is a nightmare.
We arrived and were given three days of orientation. The majority focused on the use of electronic health records. We were broken up into four teams of three to four providers, doctors and nurse practitioners and then assigned an extension intensive care unit (ICU)—which is a regular floor with critical care patients—in which almost all patients, if not all, were on ventilators. Each patient was very sick and on the brink of death. None of us were critical care specialists: We were orthopedists, certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), plastic surgeons and general surgeons. We did have some backup from medical and critical care physicians, but a lot of our work was on-the-job training. Fortunately, two of us on separate teams had critical care training back in the day—mine in my trauma fellowship. The unit was turned over to us, and we were in the fight.
The patients were on ventilators, all were on vasopressors for blood pressure, and many required dialysis. They were all heavily sedated. They required intensive care, which was being given in regular patient rooms, battlefield conditions. To examine the patients, we had to wear a head covering, a plastic gown, gloves, goggles or a face shield and an N95 mask covered with a regular surgical mask. It’s like getting ready for deep-space exploration. We entered the room, cramped and stuffy, and examined the patient, made vent changes or whatever needed to be done and exited. The monitors were near the door so the nurses didn’t have to get all geared up to check vital signs.
There were no visitors. They were not allowed in the hospital. We made daily calls to patients’ families to provide updates. Patients died surrounded by strangers who have desperately tried to save them. The frustration for those of us caring for the patients was enormous and exhausting. We did the best we could. Resources were stretched thin, although there was enough protective gear.
Fortunately, the number of critical patients began to decrease and our mission came to an end. I am now home from my deployment to New York City, after being quarantined in my New York hotel room for five days. The Navy then required another two weeks of home quarantine. The New York COVID-19 Response was a tremendous experience. I saw medical care from a different viewpoint, in a “safety net” hospital with an overworked staff and limited resources. It was initially unnerving entering a morass of COVID-19 patients who were dramatically sick. However, as with my two previous deployments, I was working with great Navy personnel who were caring and professional and delivered the best care possible under tough conditions.
As always, I am proud to be part of our military, proud to serve and do my part. No one does these deployments alone. I am grateful to my partners and office staff, my friends and family and especially my wife for their support and concern.