Some doctors and nurses with the Air Force Reserves are warning the public not to underestimate the continued threat posed by the coronavirus. They were among thousands of military personnel who deployed to New York City during the height of its pandemic.
Lt. Joseph O’Brien was in his pajamas creating a PowerPoint presentation for his job as a nurse educator at AdventHealth Orlando when he got a call. It was his other job, the Reserves, and he had four hours to report to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to head to New York City.
“So I had about two hours to say goodbye to my wife and my, at the time, 11-month-old daughter with not many answers when would I be coming back, where exactly would I be going,” he said.
This was in early April, when the Army had recently converted the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a hospital and the Navy’s U.S.S. Comfort had arrived to also provide medical support.
O’Brien assumed he might assist with those efforts, but instead he and his comrades received an unusual assignment for the military: they were to ditch the uniforms and work alongside civilian health workers in 10 city hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There was no way to prepare for some of the things that we were seeing,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien, who serves in the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at MacDill, worked as an emergency room nurse at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx as hospitalizations peaked.
“All the rooms were full of COVID patients, all the hallway beds full of COVID patients, and when we ran out of hallway beds, we had chairs, and people would be sitting – if they were able to sit – in a chair with oxygen on their face,” he said. “It was really disaster management.”
His civilian job as a nurse educator is what freed him up to deploy, as the Air Force Reserve Command said it carefully selected people who were not actively treating COVID-19 patients in their own communities. But O’Brien has spent most of his career on the emergency room floor. He tapped into that experience, as well as the organization skills he learned in the military, while working at Jacobi.
O’Brien said he and other health workers had to make painful decisions with limited resources to treat sick and dying patients.
“If we really didn’t feel like there was much we could do for that patient, we would move on, and that’s sort of the idea of disaster management, do the best you can for the greatest amount of people,” he said.
“So if we didn’t have the resources we would move on, and it was so unfortunate to see the fright in people’s eyes because they knew it,” he said, adding that language barriers often made it challenging to communicate with patients who didn’t speak English during those difficult moments. “That took a lot of time to sort of come to terms with.”
Lt. Col. Raja Talati, who typically works at Midway Specialty Care in Fort Pierce, Fla. was another of the eight Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 927th Air Refueling Wing who went to New York. The wing’s Chief of Aerospace Medicine worked as an attending physician at Jacobi.
Talati said it was hard to see patients without their loved ones nearby because visitation at hospitals was restricted for safety measures.
He used his knowledge of Hindi and French to try to connect with patients who spoke those languages, and he spent time holding patients’ hands so they wouldn’t be alone.
“As a provider, when somebody dies without their family it’s tough,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I had to be a family for a lot of people.”
Signs of hope
The reservists said they cherished the half-hour bus ride from the hospital to their hotel because it was an opportunity for people to talk as a group about what they were experiencing before returning to isolation in their rooms.
The military also had behavioral health teams check in with service members to help them handle the emotional strain so they could continue to effectively do their jobs.
Over time, the situation got better. At Jacobi, hospital staff played Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” over the loudspeakers as patients were taken off breathing tubes and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” when patients went home. As the days went on the music played more often.
Col. Jennifer Robyn Ratcliff, commander of the 927th Aerospace Medical Squadron and an orthopedic surgeon at the Orlando VA hospital, helped lead the New York mission. Her role was to coordinate where teams of reservists would be stationed and to make sure they had everything they needed.
It also involved the complicated decision of when the reservists could leave New York. Though COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, once hospitals were mostly treating non-coronavirus patients, leadership decided it was time.
“I know we can’t take care of everybody, but I honestly believe people survived this disease and went home to their families because the military was there to help them,” Ratcliff said.
According to the Air Force Reserve Command, Reserve Citizen Airmen saw more than 37,000 patients during the roughly six-week period in New York City.
“It’s not over”
Now those reservists have come home to Florida. They were ordered to quarantine for two weeks as an added safety precaution after testing negative for COVID-19 before leaving New York.
Lt. O’Brien chose to quarantine at the base hotel at MacDill out of concern for his infant daughter. Col. Ratcliff went home to her dogs in Orlando, and Lt. Col. Talati returned to his wife and teenage sons in Port St. Lucie.
They’re eager to return to some sense of normal life, but they know that may not be possible, especially with cases on the rise in Florida and other parts of the country.
Talati is urging everyone to follow public health guidelines about physical distancing and wearing masks.
“It doesn’t affect you until you see these people die,” he said. “We need to be mindful, it’s not over. We don’t need any more unnecessary deaths on something that’s preventable.”
The reservists said they talked with their leaders about whether they would need to deploy again if another health care system gets overwhelmed. The decision would ultimately be up to U.S. Northern Command, and while it doesn’t seem likely, they know it’s possible.
All three said they’d willingly answer the call, but hope for everyone’s sake they don’t have to.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.