PENSACOLA, Fla. –
Sailors from Expeditionary Medical Facility - Lima returned home to Naval Hospital Pensacola (NHP) Sept. 10, from deployment to the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
During the deployment, the Acute Care Team's (ACT) mission was to provide stabilization support to Texas civilian hospitals during peak COVID-19 patient surges.
Lt. Michael Cunningham, a pharmacist at NHP who deployed with the team, said, "This was a really touching deployment. This was an opportunity for me to help Americans directly. We weren't trying to keep our fighting forces fit for duty. We were treating American civilians and making sure that the people we signed up to protect were safe, healthy and able to survive this crisis."
Cunningham's job while on this deployment was to serve as the team leader for ancillary services. "When we got there, there were about 250 COVID-19 positive patients," stated Cunningham. “I reviewed clinical charts, did medication reconciliation, built and verified medications for over 2,000 patients over the time I was there, across all of those boards. We saw a huge spectrum of patients across the care continuum.
"This was a huge mission, and it had top-down investment throughout the whole thing. We had three-star generals and admirals tracking on what we were doing every day," Cunningham said. "I mean we had regular calls with the Surgeon General. I got to speak with Surgeon General, Rear Adm. [Bruce] Gillingham myself about how the pharmacy was functioning and how the ACT was doing out here."
Cunningham pointed out the nature of this unique deployment and the opportunity to affect medicine as a whole.
"This is a first, and we're still trying to figure out how to treat COVID-19. We talk about being on the front lines of medicine. This [deployment] was the front lines of medicine." said Cunningham
Lt. Olivia Smoak, a Nurse Corps Officer at NHP who deployed with the team was a civilian emergency room nurse in New York City before joining the Navy. This deployment made her feel like her old self again.
"On this deployment, working with civilians with that high of an acuity patient was a really nice treat," said Smoak. "We don't typically get the sickest patients on the Military Treatment Facility side, just because we have a healthy active-duty community, with frequent operational screenings. We have a healthy population, so it was really nice to test our mental capacity to treat things in the moment. It was amazing to see."
Smoak’s' position during the deployment was as an Emergency Room nurse on one of the code teams, which consisted of an ER nurse (Smoak), a certified nurse anesthetist, and a respiratory therapist. The code teams’ job was responding to code blues and rapid responses throughout the facility. "When we got there, there were patients in the emergency room held there for days because there was no space available for them." Smoak said.
"It was pretty much code after code after code, and when you're in the moment, you rely on your algorithms and adrenaline. You don't have time to sit and process what you're doing because [suddenly] you have another code to go to. There, you have to compartmentalize your job, and then deal with the emotional side of it later. It's such a sad situation," Smoak stated. "I don't think we would have lasted more than a couple of days out there, so I'm excited to be back to kind of process my feelings because what we saw was ugly."
The ACT entered the facility during a critical point, and began their mission. They were sent to augment the hospital staff, but providing relief for the influx of COVID-19 patients would come at a cost.
"We had to FaceTime some family members at the end to make some tough decisions with people and sometimes through language barriers," Smoak said. "We were essentially taking care of people in their last moments and, it felt like fighting the Grim Reaper on slippery ground. There were some tough days."
The ACTs were given cards and hand-written thank you notes from patients and staff before they returned home. Working together created close relationships between the teams, and the ACTs were welcomed back by hospital leadership.
"I have to say that probably the hardest part for me personally was dealing with the naysayers and people on social media saying COVID-19 is a hoax. I even had some friends and family members saying that while I was gone," Smoak said. "I felt offended. They're not personally affected by this stuff, so I tried to give them my perspective gently. I was surprised how much that that struck me that people don't believe COVID-19 exists."
Every Sailor returning from the deployment will be placed on a 14-day restriction of movement based on the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The Sailors will be tested for COVID-19 a second time after the 14 days.