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San Diego medical military team help hospital on brink of collapse

U.S. Navy Sailors stand in line to receive their hospital identification cards at San Juan Regional Medical Center during the COVID response operations in Farmington, New Mexico
Spc. Nicholas Goodman Defense Department Support to FEMA COVID-19
U.S. Navy Sailors stand in line to receive their hospital identification cards at San Juan Regional Medical Center during the COVID response operations in Farmington, New Mexico

San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, New Mexico serves a vast area in the Four Corners. Dr. Brad Greenberg, medical director of emergency preparedness at the hospital, said they care for all people no matter who they are or where they come from.

"We serve a mixture of urban, rural and frontier areas and also a referral center for many of the facilities that exist on the Navajo Nation," said Greenberg.

COVID has not been kind to the region. They’ve had five COVID waves and the last 13 weeks have been especially tough.


"We were on the verge of a of a true clinical catastrophe," said Greenberg. "We did not have enough personnel to take care of the really incredibly high numbers of critically ill folks."

San Diego medical military team help hospital on brink of collapse

The Navy came to their rescue, with two 23-member Navy Medical Response Teams from San Diego’s Navy Medical Center.

Commander Dr. Nikunj Bhatt, the senior medical officer, said they are proud to carry out this mission.

"This is what we’re trained for, this is what we do, this is what we love to do," he said. "And you know I can’t imagine being anywhere else except being on the front lines of patient care."

"I was really really shocked when I heard that they had so many people that were on the ventilators," said Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniela Jenkins, RN.
Jenkins is an ICU nurse with the Navy team. Before the military, she worked at a civilian hospital.


"I know how hard it is to be short staffed, and how hard it is to have to take three to four patients in the ICU, and no ICU nurse should ever have to care for three to four patients. And they’re all so sick, and it has been really amazing to hear these nurses say it hasn’t been like this in like a month," she said.

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Dr. Greenberg said the Navy’s arrival did wonders for the hospital and morale. "Boy, what a finally a little bit of a tail wind some inspiration and feeling like we’re all in this together," he said.

He credits them with saving the hospital from collapse, and with saving many lives in the process.

"Any patient that makes it, it almost like heals our soul ... We’ve had patients come back to visit us walking into the ICU to say thank you … those are the wins that just they keep me going," said Nurse Jenkins.

Not every story ends this way, but Lieutenant Commander Charles Volk, a pulmonary critical care doctor, said losing a patient doesn't mean failure.

"Part of our job is... to be there, if we can’t cure someone or heal them, is to care for them... at the end of their life and make sure that the end of their life this as good as possible... with minimal amount of pain and suffering as as we could possibly achieve," said Volks. "That’s been an equal parts trying and rewarding part of our job especially but during this pandemic when we’ve just had so so much it."

Jenkins said success is also measured by those they treat with compassion, even when patients can’t feel it.

"That time is so special because that is time the patient is not going to remember but the family does," she said.

These heroes are human and these experiences leave their mark. Dr. Bhatt said showing emotion isn’t a sign of weakness.

"There are times where is hard it really is hard and you just have to step away from it we’re all human and there’s times where I’ve cried," said Bhatt.

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Jenkins said seeing death is hard, and experiencing loss during the holidays somehow feels different.

"It’s tough, I mean, walking into a room and seeing lifeless soul there. It’s hard, it’s not easy ,and I feel like I get very like tied up with my patients and especially around the holidays," she said. "I feel like those losses hurt me more I cannot imagine how those losses are to that patient's loved ones especially on Christmas day, that was tough."

But those experiences have changed them for the better too, and they will carry the stories of this community with them forever.

Dr. Bhatt said they learned from those they cared for. "We were very close to the Navajo Nation, and hearing some of their stories and practices, all those things are very touching for us and it’s been a profound kind of experience," he said. "Sometimes even a wake-up call, just understanding where they’re coming from and their stories that they provide, even incorporating some of the healing practices into our care."

Dr. Greenberg says they too will live on in the hearts of the staff and community because they answered the call when they needed them the most.

"Our sincerest appreciation for your sacrifices and free willingness to come out here in and help make a difference," said Greenberg. "To each of their families that similarly make the sacrifice to be the the forces behind those active duty service members that make all this happen thank you also."

And news of their good work travelled San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who praised the teams. "I have tremendous respect for those who serve our nation and those who are doing it in a difficult time like this they often sacrifice both their own comfort as well as that of their family in order to protect all of us," said Gloria. "I thank them from the bottom my heart I thank them they represent the best of this country the best of our city."

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This means a lot to those who served on this mission for over a month, through the holidays.

"Honestly, that’s all that matters is 'thank you,' it matters a lot. Those two words mean a lot to us," said Jenkins.

But as they were leaving, another COVID wave is hitting the rest of the country — a fact that is not lost on Dr. Greenberg.

"We’re sitting right at the edge of our seats waiting for the omicron to really make itself known within the state of New Mexico and the region," he said.

As this virus continues to mutate, there are so many unknowns but having heroes like these on the front lines, 1,000 of them who will soon be deployed, brings hope to those communities that are facing or are about to face the worst.