Three Kenner Army Health Clinic Soldiers recently returned from a two-month coronavirus-related mission supporting United Memorial Medical Center, a private hospital in Houston.
The UMMC had reached out for help and worked with government agencies to bring in military medical members to assist with patients suffering from COVID-19. Regional Health Command-Atlantic’s Behavioral Health team organized the medical mission and put out the word that support was needed for an Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force.
Maj. Burke Lenz, chief of Kenner’s Family Advocacy Program, and two medics, Staff Sgt. Frank Romanowski and Spc. Thomas Sharpe, joined 86 Soldiers from across the Army consisting of doctors, behavioral providers, nurses, medics, lab techs, logisticians and others to form a robust medical team. Upon arrival, they began to organize and prepare a ward to take on patients.
“The hospital gave us a wing to run,” Lenz said, “and we set it up (as) a ‘COVID style’ unit.
“Almost immediately, the lines to get tested became so long outside, they had to get police to help manage the traffic due to people blocking the street,” the major continued. “The emergency room started daily testing at 8 a.m., and people were getting in line as early as 4 a.m.”
He added that many of the patients were evacuees from Hurricane Hanna. Some of the sick went to their unit, while others went to the civilian unit; both located in the same hospital.
“(Our ward setup included) an anteroom, consisting of a clean and a dirty side,” Lenz elaborated. “Anytime you would go into the COVID ward, there was an anteroom taped off where you would put on or take off all of the personal protective equipment needed to take care of patients.”
Lenz’ primary job was patient discharge planning, while his other responsibilities included providing behavioral health support and/or resiliency counseling to the medic Soldiers who were part of the task force.
“In the hospital, we had two shifts,” he said. “I worked with the hospital social workers because they still needed to track our numbers – how many people we had in the unit – and deal with insurance and discharge technicalities.
“After watching all the pandemic events on the news, and then actually seeing it up close, it made it more real,” Lenz said, also noting how he, like many others most likely, had viewed the pandemic as something that was happening somewhere else to other people.
“But actually … being there and having to think about was happening, I really started to pay attention to details like my mask being worn correctly, washing my hands extensively and all the important things I needed to do to stay safe.”
Lenz noted that COVID doesn’t stereotype or discriminate who gets it. The youngest patient they received was age 24 and the oldest was in the late 80s. He said in the short time they were there, they lost four patients. Two of them were sudden, and the other two had been there sick for so long there wasn’t much more they could have done to help. He added that many of the patients did have underlying health issues that come with age, diabetes, lupus and asthma.
The major also assisted with Traumatic Event Management, which is designed to address Soldiers in a group setting who may have gone through a mentally troubling experience.
“There was an incident in which a patient coded and then passed following desperate lifesaving measures by the medical team,” Lenz recalled. “This is when the TEM came in to play by helping (that) medical team … process what happened, which is an important step in restoring unit cohesion and effectiveness and reducing short-term emotional and physical distress.
“It was sad for the ones we lost,” he further acknowledged. “Especially the unexpected two because we couldn’t prepare ourselves. Overall, however, I feel like people were generally getting better toward the end of our time there. A few needed rehab, but most … would go home on their own or with their family.”
Romanowski – a veteran of four deployments, two of them involving combat – had mixed feelings about the mission. He had never worked in a hospital setting, but he became the assistant ward master where he helped prepare and run a 36-bed unit and oversee 14 ancillary Soldiers.
“As a medic, this experience was very beneficial and important,” he said. “We need to have experience in all areas of patient care, from the field to the clinic then on to the hospital. Each of these areas requires a different set of skills we need to have.”
He added that while both the field and clinic time provide patient care in the immediate and short term, they do not provide the longer patient care time the hospital experience does.
“It’s this very experience I appreciated receiving from this deployment. I feel it has and will improve my skills as a medic going forward.”
Romanowski described how “wonderful” it was to see service members representing 25 different medical treatment facilities and other military organizations coming and working together as if they’d been a cohesive unit for a long time.
“We each contributed to the success of the mission,” he acknowledged. “This deployment was fulfilling in that we were able to make a difference in patients’ lives in the care we provided while they were with us.”
At the end of their assignment, Lenz said the numbers of patients were going down and their service was no longer needed. However, the team could possibly be pulled back to assist again until March 2021.
“I’ve been back to work about a week, and I am a lot more cautious than before I left,” Lenz offered as a final note. “If someone wants to shake my hand, I suggest, ‘how about an elbow bump instead?’”