JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Lt. Col. (Dr.) G. Travis Clifton returned to a hero’s welcome last week after a deployment unlike any he’d experienced in his 14-year Army career.
Clifton’s Brooke Army Medical Center colleagues, wife Elizabeth and three sons surprised the doctor with a COVID-19-safe drive-by welcome home parade May 17.
“It was a big surprise,” said Clifton, after nearly a dozen cars circled his neighborhood with hand-drawn signs and balloons. “It was nice to be welcomed back with open arms.”
Rather than the familiar rugged terrain of Afghanistan, this West Point graduate had been sent to serve in a surreal battleground of narrow streets and sky-high towers, helping to fight an embattled city’s war against an unseen and unprecedented enemy.
Clifton, BAMC’s chief of general surgery and a surgical oncologist, was one of nearly 40 healthcare professionals from BAMC who deployed to New York City in late March to help alleviate a hospital system overwhelmed by patients suffering from COVID-19.
Earlier that month, a few dozen cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed. By late March, reports indicated the number had risen to over 36,000 cases across the city’s five boroughs, with nearly 800 deaths.
To help care for urgent but non-COVID-19 cases, the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort docked in New York City March 30. Meanwhile, Clifton joined a team of 800 Army and Navy medical personnel to help transform the Jacob K. Javits Center, a massive convention center in Manhattan, into an alternate care facility.
“Our main effort was to turn the Javits Center in just one week from an empty convention center into a 2,500-bed field hospital to alleviate the huge burden on the local hospitals,” Clifton explained.
The Javits Center, in conjunction with FEMA and the New York State Health Department, was initially intended to be a COVID-19-free, medical overflow facility. The team’s first challenge was to create individual exam and hospital rooms in a cavernous space while familiarizing themselves with borrowed equipment.
“The situation was different than any I’d encountered,” Clifton said. “I was familiar with a field hospital, doing deployment medicine and being adaptable to austere conditions. But setting up a convention center with a different mission than that type of unit is designed to do, one that involved treating American civilians, required a lot of adjustments.”
Clifton’s focus was on ensuring personnel understood how to recognize and treat the virus using the best available data at that time. “Even if we were planning to take only non-COVID-19 patients at first, we knew we would encounter COVID-19 cases among them based on the rapid spread throughout the city,” he said.
Once open for business, Clifton found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to stand by and wait for patients, COVID-19 or otherwise.
“The first day it was decided we would accept COVID-19 patients to increase our capacity, we took in far short of what we expected,” he said, noting the New York State Health Department expanded the Javits’ scope on April 3. “We realized there was some confusion regarding the established transfer criteria and decided to meet with hospital officials in person to help explain and facilitate the process.”
Clifton and a few other physicians took on the role of liaison officers and immediately began visiting some of the hardest-hit city hospitals to explain the Javits’ capabilities and to facilitate transfers.
Clifton chose to meet with officials at Elmhurst Hospital, part of the NYC Health and Hospitals System, in the borough of Queens, reviewing dozens of patient charts to see if they met the criteria for transfer.
Situated in an area encompassing nearly 1 million people, the 545-bed hospital had been slammed with COVID-19 patients and was operating at 125 percent capacity. A spokesman for the city public hospital systems had noted Elmhurst was “at the center of this crisis.”
“It was very much overwhelmed at Elmhurst,” Clifton said. “There were way too many patients in the ER and no place to put them. Rather than rely on a call-center or website, I knew by going in person, we could help in a much more concrete way.”
With Clifton’s support and the hospital’s cooperation, Elmhurst went from transferring 20 patients to about 60 in just a few days. Clifton’s efforts were echoed at other busy city hospitals and the patient numbers at Javits began to increase. In just over a month, the Javits Center treated nearly 1,100 patients.
“I definitely feel we made an impact and were able to put our skills to good use,” Clifton said. “The number of patients we treated is not a huge number compared to the total burden carried by New York. However, it was 1,100 patients that were able to get attention, to lie comfortably in a patient room rather than in a hallway. To those patients, to those individuals, that number was not insignificant at all.”
As New York began to recover, Clifton and the other military medical personnel transferred the last patients from Javits on May 1 and returned to their home units and families shortly after.
When Clifton first deployed, his wife said she felt some trepidation since the virus was such an unknown threat, but knew her husband would be drawn to a mission dedicated to caring for others. “We are all very proud of him and are happy to have him safe at home,” she said, adding that she was also relieved to have the extra help with their sons’ schoolwork.
With the global pandemic ongoing, Clifton is back at work at BAMC, but still coming to terms with the unusual nature of his recent military mission.
“It is a very extraordinary mission deploying in the U.S.,” he said. “I’ve been to New York plenty of times, but being there during a lockdown with empty streets felt surreal. It was a different type of mission, but I am proud to have served my nation in this way alongside an outstanding team of adaptable and ready professionals.”
The adaptability of Clifton and the other BAMC personnel is impressive, but not surprising, noted Air Force Col. Patrick Osborn, BAMC’s deputy commander for surgical services. “The ability of Dr. Clifton and the rest of the BAMC staff to effectively care for patients outside their typical specialty and experience demonstrates the extraordinary readiness value that BAMC and its personnel provide to the nation,” Osborn said. “The mindset borne of consistent trauma and complex surgical care reinforces the knowledge and skill required to provide care in any environment.”