PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo --
Part of being a Reserve Citizen Airman means being prepared to deploy in a moment’s notice. A moment could be for months, weeks or even days. Eight reservists with the 302nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron received their call to deploy in support of COVID-19 just days before departure.
A few of the reservists only had 48 hours to pack their belongings, contact their civilian jobs, make sure their families were set up, verify their military training and ensure records were up-to-date before boarding planes to provide medical support in New York.
“I was nervous but excited,” said Maj. Kelly Prigge, who was a medical surge nurse at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, during the deployment. “It was a different opportunity and that’s the reason why we serve is to be able to help people and get out there to make a difference.”
Prigge, Capt. Melinda McClendon, who was a nurse at Queens Hospital, and Maj. Leslie Shook, who was assigned to the prone team at Lincoln Medical Center, all described their experience working on the COVID-19 frontlines in New York as an experience unlike anything they have done before.
For some, being a reservist has the benefit of using civilian and military medical experiences to get the job done and take care of people. Previously, McClendon was a critical care nurse for seven years and Shook worked in an Intensive Care Unit for 10 years. Prigge took trauma care courses for a prior deployment that were useful for COVID-19 patients.
Their days were roughly 12 hours long and began with a bus ride from their hotel through the empty streets of Manhattan to their respective hospital to receive their patient list for the day. Almost all of their patients were on ventilators or were so sick their interactions were minimal.
Treating patients during a pandemic was different than anything McClendon said she had ever done before. The difference were the efforts in trying to prevent the spread of the virus by shutting all of the doors and limiting their time with the patients leaving them in their rooms by themselves resulting in a negative impact in the patients’ mental health.
Even though it was difficult to leave the patients in their rooms alone, McClendon would drop what she was doing to answer a video call from a patient’s family. To her, taking the time to let the family speak to the patient was more important. Additionally, she would tell them all the little tasks the patient did that day, for example, getting them up in a chair and them eating all of their food. Tasks where in normal circumstances the family would be there to help.
“I think it made a difference because you could tell in the family’s voices that the patient knew they were talking. Even if the patient wasn’t responding we knew they heard them,” she said.
For Prigge, she sang to her patients. At the beginning of the day when she received her patient list she took notice of what religion or age group they were in and picked songs she felt would relate to them.
“Every day it was just trying to do all the patient care you know you’re supposed to, in the right way possible, as quickly as you could,” she said. “Unfortunately in a 12-hour day you couldn’t get through all of it and that was probably the hardest part was there were so many patients and so little time.”
After their 12-hour shift, they were bused back through the empty Manhattan streets to their hotel room.
At the end of each day, they leaned on their fellow service members and family for support.
Shook said it was beneficial seeing at least 12 people that he knew from before this deployment, such as his commander during this deployment who was his chief nurse a few years ago.
“We equated it as a big family reunion: we make friends on every deployment, every (military trip), and past units, and we all came back together in New York,” said McClendon.
McClendon, Prigge and Shook ate meals with their friends or walked down the empty streets to discuss their day, decompress and take pictures at iconic monuments around New York. Additionally, they reached back to their families.
For McClendon, she spoke with her family most days and sat down to dinner with them through a video call. She also had what she called a “virtual happy hour” with her friends where they would catch up via video calls.
Prigge, decorated her room with pictures of her family and motivational trinkets like a mug that said “Celebrate the small things.”
“I know I did my best to make a difference in those patients’ lives, but was also there for my friends too,” said McClendon. “When someone would have a bad day and lose a couple patients, what do you do? Just being there to support each other like that was super important.”
By the end of May, Prigge, McClendon and Shook started the process to return home.
“By the time we were pulled out of that environment and being brought back home, we actually got to see the hospital get better and that really helped with the acceptance process of leaving” said Prigge.
She was also part of a team who trained the hospital’s mental health nurses to be medical surge nurses in case there is an increase in COVID-19 patients after they left.
Additionally, Prigge used another resource, the Military One Source, to help with the transition back home. She said being able to speak with a counselor to process her experiences before returning to her family was very beneficial.
Finally, before they flew home they were tested for COVID-19 and were put on 14-day quarantine orders to ensure they were returning to their families, civilian jobs and communities COVID-19 free.
“It was a very different experience, very different care, very different atmosphere but it was still what I do; take care of people,” said McClendon. “I know every day I went into work and gave it my all, I took care of my patients to the best of my ability with my resources.”
They encourage their fellow service members to stay up to date on their training and take every opportunity to receive additional training the military provides. For example the additional trauma care courses Prigge advocated for herself to take for a prior deployment.
“Stay up to date on everything with medical skills and get the required training that will help get the practice in so you are ready to go in a moment’s notice,” said McClendon.
Over 1000 Reserve Citizen Airmen were activated in support of COVID-19, including more than 120 medical personnel to New York City and 100 aeromedical evacuation Airmen to Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina.
The 302 ASTS reservists who were deployed in support of COVID-19 were:
Col. Stephen Hernandez
Lt. Col. Matt Bershinsky
Maj. Kelly Prigge
Maj. Les Shook
Capt. Stacy Thomas
Capt. Melinda McClendon
Tech. Sgt. Rob Vuitonnet
Senior Airman Mehader Tefari