Reservists from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, are coming out of quarantine after returning from fighting COVID-19 in New York.
It was a hectic time when they first arrived, but responders were happy with the condition of the hospitals as they were leaving.
The 927th Air Refueling Wing sent eight medics to New York to be a part of 281 Air Force reserve medical professionals who volunteered and saw more than 37,000 patients between mid-April and June. They sent an additional dozen Aeromedical Evacuation Airmen across the nation for other COVID-19 relief missions.
“I did see the situation change, and for the better,” said Capt. Sarilia Therildor, a nurse with the 927th Air Refueing Wing, based at MacDill. “It’s funny, I did interviews at the beginning and we said we would beat the disease. By the time we were leaving two and a half months later, it seems like that was the case.”
In New York, she went through a short orientation and was quickly sent to a hospital and put into the ER working 12-hour days — which she said made it easier, being in her area of expertise.
Therildor said the hospital was already down on medical staff because they were dying on a weekly basis due to COVID. In addition, a lot of patients were coming.
“The patients coming in were really sick, and a lot of them were waiting to come in because they didn’t want to be exposed which made their symptoms even worse,” she said. And there were often situations where their families could not accompany them into the hospital.
After one of her interviews, someone contacted Therildor on Facebook to check on their family member — something she couldn’t do for them because of HIPAA regulations.
“That was bothersome, because their family member was in the ICU and they said they hadn’t heard from anyone for days,” she said. “I’m not able to reach out to the person and let them know what I was going to do but I did relay that information to our team leader.”
Another problem that arose with people waiting to come into the hospital fearing exposure to the virus was that they would ignore other potentially life-threatening health issues.
One patient came in with deep vein thrombosis, a condition where a blood clot forms in a vein deep in the body. Waiting to get treatment, his condition worsened, and he developed a pulmonary embolism, where he had a clot in his lungs.
“He came in complaining of lower extremity swelling but the issue he was facing was life threatening,” Therildor said.
Another patient came in having mini strokes while medical staff was trying to process her.
“This is another aspect of COVID that providers had to be dealing with. There were other patients with problems, and they didn’t want to come into the hospital because of COVID but their health issues were just as concerning,” said Therildor.
To be able to fit the number of patients they were receiving, the hospitals were doing some “pretty unique stuff,” said Col. Jennifer Ratcliff, the 927th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Commander. They turned recovery and old ER rooms into intensive care units, for example.
“I don’t know how they were doing what they were doing,” she said. “They were lower [on staff] than normal with way more patients than normal. There was no doubt they needed our help when we got there.”
When the reservists first arrived, Ratcliff’s role was to assemble them into teams and get them out to hospitals across New York.
“At the time no one had a plan for us,” she said. “They needed somebody to put all of the teams together, so I started in a leadership role getting those teams prepared to go out to the area hospitals based on what they wanted.”
After that, Ratcliff worked in the ER until things slowed down a little bit, then going back to maintaining her leadership role in handling people.
By the time they left, Ratcliff said the staffing had improved almost back to normal at the hospitals and the number of patients coming in was much lower. The typical ER population was restored, and they were able to start opening up other parts of the hospital to see non-COVID-related patients.
“I certainly feel like we didn’t leave at a time that the city still needed us,” she said. “The work that we needed to do I think we completed.”
Ratcliff said she was notified of her deployment a day in advance, flew out, and was in the hospital within a week.
“You generally have a lot of time, at least usually a couple months to get your life in order,” she said. But “when you’re needed somewhere the military knows how to get you there in a very timely and fluid process.”
She said it wasn’t a total surprise, as there was an executive order, some emails going around and a survey to see if you were fighting COVID in your fulltime job — some “rumblings” that something might happen.
Ratcliff is an orthopedic surgeon at the Orlando VA in her civilian life, and with minimal elective surgeries happening at the time, things were a little slow.
“It was fairly good timing in that my practice didn’t really need anything,” she said. “I did more work to fight COVID in New York than I would have staying in Orlando.”
Therildor was happy to get the orders to quickly get out to New York and start helping as well.
“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to give back,” she said. “This is the moment we wait for, the moment we’re called to serve.”
A survey was sent out in March to vet and select reserve citizen airmen who volunteered to support the mission.
“What would that medical professional provide in New York City and was the need there greater than in their civilian profession,” said Sean Houlihan, an AFRC public affairs division chief. “There were probably many more volunteers that we had but we did not deploy because they needed to stay where they were doing their civilian jobs.”
And this was no ordinary mission.
“The Air Force Reserve stands ready to surge in support of the COVID-19 response,” Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, chief of the Air Force Reserve and commander of Air Force Reserve Command, said on the day the executive order was signed. “This is an unprecedented mission and COVID-19 is a destructive adversary. We must do all we can to take care of Americans.”
“From our IMAs to our Reserve medics, I couldn’t be prouder of this incredible Reserve team who stepped up quickly to answer our nation’s call,” Scobee said.
Reservists were tested for COVID on their way out of New York, self-quarantined for more than two weeks, and were tested again before being able to return to their everyday lives.