Written by Melinda Henderson, MD
It was the second weekend of March, and I was alongside 250 other US Army Reserve soldiers at Camp Blanding, Florida for a regional training exercise. It was exactly that week that the elevation of concern about COVID was changing travel policy and hinting at changing our lives. While at Camp Blanding, I distinctly remember looking at the Johns Hopkins COVID tracker (a medical web site that counts COVID cases and deaths across the globe) at the end of every day and wondering what in the world was this going to become. On Sunday, March 15 the Army initiated travel restrictions for reserve units, and the soldiers training at Camp Blanding were sent home; I traveled back to Tennessee.
March 15 was just ten days after the first COVID-positive patient in Tennessee, just four days after the WHO labeled COVID-19 as a pandemic, and just two days after the President’s declaration of a National Emergency. Our schools were canceling events, and quickly thereafter, spring break plans were also cancelled.
Looking back, it is hard to remember HOW quickly we were making decisions at that time as a nation, as a state, and as individuals about how to respond to all the new information coming to us even with that information lacking and high levels of uncertainty.
Just one week later, I received an email from the US Army Reserve Command Surgeon looking for physician volunteers for the Department of Defense COVID-19 response. There were no specifics about what it would mean to volunteer – no details on where, what, or the length of the commitment. I knew one thing, though. Despite all those uncertainties, I was raising my hand to volunteer as a US Army Reserve Physician to help.
On April 4 I received orders to report to Fort Sheridan, Chicago to begin staging with an Army Medical team, and on April 11 I walked onto a C-17 headed to Boston, MA as part of the 801-1 – Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force.
I was mobilized as part of a new unit specifically designed to respond to the national pandemic. The US Army Reserve created teams of 85 soldiers – they included physicians, nurses, medics, logistics, admin, and therapists who could be quickly moved to respond to an area with need.
My specific task force was assigned to Boston Hope Hospital. This was a hospital set up in a Boston convention center where we cared for patients who were known COVID-positive and needed additional medical care like oxygen and physical therapy. Some also needed medical care for their chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. Almost all of them also needed a kind hand to hold and reassurance that they were going to be okay.
I would like to tell you about one patient that we cared for at Boston Hope. I’ll call her Mary.
Before I tell you about Mary, though, I need to tell you some important background about Boston Hope. It was truly a makeshift or “field” hospital set up inside a large convention center on cement floors. The 8 x 10 rooms were unfinished plasterboard walls sectioning off patient rooms with thin curtains in lieu of doors. There was an extension cord draped over one wall that provided a power source to the small room that held a patient bed, oxygen tank, and bed side table. It was not luxury accommodations.
Now back to Mary. Mary was in her 50’s and came to Boston Hope for ongoing oxygen needs and elevated heart rate after her COVID diagnosis. I went in to admit Mary and welcome her to Boston Hope, and the only thing she wanted to talk to me about was leaving. The facility was not up to her standards, and she wanted to know how quickly she could get out. I assured her that her health was my biggest concern and that her oxygen was dropping way too low to safely leave the hospital. I asked her to stay just ONE night, and we would re-evaluate in the morning. The next day, I went in knowing that, once again, I was going to have to talk her into staying another night because the nurse’s report was that her oxygen was still dangerously low. However, overnight, under the care of the US Army team, she no longer needed convincing. Despite the basic and simple accommodations, she had experienced outstanding care and attention from the Army team and was ready to stay as long as her health required.
It was an absolute honor to work beside my Army teammates every day in the hospital. More than any other time in my career, I felt an overwhelming clarity about my purpose and mission.
As I reflect on this experience, I think about where in my Christian beliefs I have intense clarity. Much like the early months of COVID, I feel like most of my religious journey has had lots of uncertainty and unclear knowledge or understanding. However, at one point in my life, I found clarity, and that was very simply “the golden rule.” I focus my beliefs on Jesus’s teaching “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). This simple message of kindness and morality helps me wade through confusing biblical texts and is where I return when I need grounding on my personal purpose and mission.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.