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MacDill Air Force reservists return from New York COVID-19 mission

Eight reservists worked alongside civilian doctors and nurses to treat patients at the height of the coronavirus spread.
Col. Doug Stouffer, commander of the 927th Air Force Refueling Wing, welcomes Air Force reservist 1st Lt. Valentina Lang back to MacDill Air Force Base on June 5 from her COVID-19 mission in New York.
Col. Doug Stouffer, commander of the 927th Air Force Refueling Wing, welcomes Air Force reservist 1st Lt. Valentina Lang back to MacDill Air Force Base on June 5 from her COVID-19 mission in New York. [ Courtesy of Lt. Col. Lisa Ray ]
Published Jun. 10, 2020

Lt. Joseph O’Brien of the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base is an emergency room nurse by trade. He’s used to seeing respiratory distress, cardiac arrests and trauma.

None of that prepared him for what awaited him at a New York City medical center at the height of the COVID-19 spread.

“Multiple people were dying in this ER in the Bronx every day, almost every hour,” he said.

O’Brien, a system educator at AdventHealth in Orlando, was one of the eight MacDill Air Force reservists in New York for about eight weeks assisting in the city’s coronavirus medical response. Now back in Florida and under quarantine, they all had to adapt to circumstances as they went.

Medical surgical floors and post-anesthesia units were gutted and turned into intensive care units, O’Brien said. During his second week in the emergency room, the hospital ran out of body bags. They improvised by using white plastic garbage bags and turned empty patient rooms into a makeshift morgue.

“There would be someone coming in and then dying an hour later or someone that’s been there for two or three days because the ICU is full and then finally passing,” he said.

Some patients would get lost and walk into the makeshift morgue where the sight and smell hit them. Staff members had to sit them down to talk and help them deal with the emotional trauma of that experience.

When O’Brien first got the call in April to deploy to New York, he had four hours to put on his uniform and arrive at MacDill, which was a two-hour drive away. He had no idea what he would be doing or where he would be working.

He just knew he wanted to help.

Col. Jennifer Ratcliff, an orthopedic surgeon in Orlando and commander of the 927th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, said that in the military and in healthcare “you have to figure out how to make things work.”

Training for a pandemic is going to be a unique skill set for the future, she said, and discussions are starting about lessons learned from the military’s response in assisting civilian healthcare workers.

The military medical corps mostly deals with trauma, such as battlefield wounds, she said, adding, “this is a whole different side of the military, taking care of medically ill patients.”

As a senior leader, Ratcliff worked to ensure that the right people were at the right location, putting their expertise to good use.

Over time, O’Brien saw a transformation in the emergency room where he worked as the number of new COVID-19 cases starting to drop. Where once the unit was 95 percent full of elderly coronavirus patients, by the end of his mission they were treating more patients with bumps, bruises and broken bones.

Younger patients with COVID-19 symptoms also were starting to come in, he said, but as long as they could maintain their airways and breathe, they were sent home to recover and quarantine.

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Most of the MacDill reservists are quarantining at home, awaiting another COVID-19 test. O’Brien is staying at the on-base hotel, rather than going home, to keep his wife and young daughter safe. None of the reservists tested positive for the virus while in New York, according to Lt. Col. Lisa Ray, spokeswoman for the 927th Air Refueling Wing.

One immediate lesson O’Brien learned from the experience: Always have a packed suitcase ready.

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