WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --
It’s been about two months since seven Citizen Airmen departed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio with only 24 hours’ notice to support COVID-19 relief efforts in New York City.
“I don't think any one of us could have been totally prepared for what we were walking into,” said Capt. Kristina Fleming, clinical nurse, 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron. “It was like nothing I could have imagined.”
The team hit the ground running. They arrived in New York on April 6th, in-processed at the Jacob K. Javits Center on the 7th, then were assigned to support at Lincoln Medical Center, a teaching hospital in The Bronx. They rapidly navigated the rank structure in place, established functional teams, learned digital medical records software, and familiarized themselves with an unfamiliar city and workplace, all within a matter of days.
“We stepped through the doors of Lincoln Hospital on April 8th. It was a little chaotic, but we all just kind of adopted the attitude of, ‘Just point us in the right direction and we can figure it out.’ And that’s what we did," said Col. Hans Otto, commander of the 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and allergist, immunologist, and internist in the civilian sector.
A doctor with 19 years of experience, Otto is no stranger to high-tempo work environments. Within three days, he was responsible for 17 patients, all but one of whom had tested positive for coronavirus.
“That’s a lot of patients to care for, even under normal circumstances, especially when you’re just getting started at a new hospital,” he said.
The volume of patients demonstrated how great the need was in New York.
“It was obvious they were overwhelmed by the entire crisis,” recalled Fleming. “Some of the agency nurses had worked 12-hour shifts for 21 days in a row before we got there.”
One floor of the hospital was transformed into an additional ICU, and this is where Fleming worked.
“We wanted to care for these people like they were our own family,” she said. “It wasn't all sunshine and happy days, though. It was hard. Every one of us experienced every emotion that we could have. But I have no doubt in my mind that we were able to save lives there, even if it was only a few.”
The COVID Commandos were part of a group of 145 total military personnel deployed to Lincoln Medical Center. Additional personnel were assigned to Jacobi Hospital, the Javits Center field hospital, and Queens Hospital. Prior to the military’s arrival, hospital administrators brought in additional nurses from private agencies to bolster the staffing ratios, but it still wasn’t enough.
“The healthcare workers who were already there were exhausted," said Otto. "They could finally take a day off."
By the end of April, Otto’s patient caseload began dwindling down to single digits.
“We arrived here just prior to the peak of the virus, rode through the peak and fought alongside the professionals here, and we’ve stayed a few weeks beyond the peak,” he said. “Now we’re looking to start coming home.”
The team members will be tested for COVID-19 prior to departing NYC, then will self-quarantine either at home or in a lodging facility for two weeks before being tested again. If both tests are negative, they’ll then enjoy a happy reunion with their families.
The final group of four COVID Commandos arrived back on Ohio soil May 31, 2020.
“Looking back, I think our presence really made a difference,” Fleming added. “We heightened the standard of care at the facility, helped ensure supplies like gloves and surgical gowns were available, and we came in and offered a fresh perspective.”
Otto reviewed the metrics from the span of time the 445th worked in Lincoln Medical Center and determined there was a 16 percent reduction in patient mortality.
"Once we started looking at the numbers, we realized that we did make a difference by being there,” he said. “One out of six people lived because we were there.”