JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
Service members are used to deploying to austere locations in support of the global war on terror, or humanitarian missions around the world, but for many, this is the first time deploying to fight an invisible enemy on U.S. soil.
More than 75 military medical personnel from Brooke Army Medical Center have deployed to hard-hit areas such as New York, Washington state, Guam and other locations to help fight COVID-19, and 20 more are on standby ready to deploy.
New York City
Nearly 40 healthcare professionals from BAMC deployed to New York City from March 27 to May 11 in support of the Department of Defense COVID-19 response. They 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 a medical shelter to treat non-COVID patients.
The Javits Center, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New York State Health Department, was initially intended to be a COVID-free, medical overflow facility. However, the mission shifted when they began providing care to COVID-positive patients in early April.
“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,” explained Lt. Col. (Dr.) G. Travis Clifton, BAMC’s chief of general surgery and a surgical oncologist. “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 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.
BAMC critical care nurse Army Maj. Caissy Goe took on an administrative role to help with problem-solving and finding best practices.
“Basically, we had this big bay with individual cubicles for each patient,” Goe said. “So, each patient had their own space, but they weren’t sealed rooms. That’s a little different from what you have in a hospital where you can shut a door and it has a roof and four walls and the patient can be isolated.
“Keeping everyone safe was our biggest priority,” Goe explained. “People had to wear their personal protective equipment the entire time they were in that space.”
In just over a month, the Javits Center treated nearly 1,100 patients.
“I definitely think there are healthcare heroes, and I would categorize the staff who were working directly with these patients as the true healthcare heroes,” Goe said. “I got to do my job, which was really to support them to provide the best patient care, but they were the ones who were at the most risk the whole time.”
One of those healthcare heroes was BAMC critical care nurse Army Maj. Sunnie Murray who worked in direct patient care and performed the role of a nursing supervisor.
“I was ensuring the teams – the nurses, the medics, the respiratory therapists, had what they needed,” Murray said. “It is like an invisible enemy. It’s a novel coronavirus, so you want to take every precaution to ensure the force is being protected. When we got there it’s like a switch (was turned on). It’s go time. We all just worked together to accomplish the mission.”
The staff worked 12-hour shifts six days a week.
“One of the greatest joys was when you could see your patient discharged and get to go home,” Murray said. “The convention center was so large, when you would start hearing clapping then you knew someone got to go home. That was awesome!”
“I definitely feel we made an impact and were able to put our skills to good use,” Clifton added.
“I was really glad I had the opportunity to go and help the American people in America,” she said. “You can’t get any closer than that as far as supporting this country at a time of need.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, 17 BAMC military healthcare personnel assigned to the 627th Hospital Center deployed to Seattle for about three weeks to set up a 148-bed hospital within the convention center attached to CenturyLink Stadium.
“Our mission was to support the local hospitals by taking non-COVID patients to ease their burden so they could focus their equipment, supplies, and personnel on COVID patients,” explained Army Cpt. Pamela Sisler, BAMC perioperative registered nurse.
The field hospital closed before admitting any patients because the local hospitals were able to support their patient load without external assistance.
“Though our mission changed several times and it was not always clear what the expectations of us were, my colleagues and I maintained motivation and positivity because we just wanted to help the city however we could,” Sisler said.
“We were surrounded by support, and the citizens of Seattle were thankful to have us there,” she said. “We received hundreds of hand-sewn masks from people in the community, which really brightened our days and showed us that the people were appreciative of what we were doing.”
An infectious disease physician from BAMC also deployed to Guam in support of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID-19 response.
Army Maj. (Dr.) Gadiel Alvarado served as the infectious disease expert for the COVID-19 Public Health Task Force from April 12-22. The team, consisting of five Army officers, was there to perform a comprehensive and multidisciplinary review of processes, assess the current situation and help with mitigation plans surrounding the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID-19 outbreak.
The 10-day mission consisted of doing face-to-face interviews, data gathering, on-site evaluations, discussions and recommendations to the Joint Regions Marinas leadership working closely with Rear Adm. John Menoni, Joint Regions Marinas commander, and personnel from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Navy Base Guam, U.S. Naval Hospital Guam to prevent further transmission of the virus.
Other BAMC personnel assigned to the 115th Field Hospital are currently supporting United States Central Command in the fight against COVID-19.
“We are always in a readiness mode,” Murray said. “No matter what the challenge or the next mission, we are going to be ready to attack it no matter what. That is what we are here to do. When we’re called, we answer. It’s as simple as that!”