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After Treating COVID-19 Patients In New York, Reservists Return Home To Rising Cases At Home

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Some doctors and nurses with the Air Force Reserves are warning the public not to underestimate the continued threat posed by the coronavirus. They were among thousands of military personnel who deployed to New York City during the height of its pandemic.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Thousands of military personnel deployed to New York city. During the worst of that city's COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many of them have returned home only to see cases spike in their own home States. Stephanie Colombini with the American Homefront project. Talk with a group of air force reservists from Florida or warning people not to get complacent about the virus.

Speaker 2: 00:24 Lieutenant Joseph O'Brien was in his pajamas, creating a PowerPoint presentation for his job as a nurse educator in Orlando, when he got a call, it was his other job, the reserves, and he had four hours to report to MacDill air force base in Tampa to head to New York city. This was in early April and O'Brien and his comrades received an unusual assignment for the military. They were to ditch the uniforms and work alongside civilian health workers and city hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaker 3: 00:54 There was no way to prepare for some of the things that we were seeing.

Speaker 2: 00:57 Oh, Brian worked as an emergency room nurse at Jacobi medical center in the Bronx as hospitalizations peaked,

Speaker 3: 01:03 All the rooms were full of COVID patients, all the hallway beds full of COVID patients. And when we ran out of hallway beds, we got chairs and people would be sitting. If they were able to sit, they would be sitting in a chair with oxygen on their face. It was really disaster management.

Speaker 2: 01:18 Oh, Brian describes the painful decisions. He and other health workers had to make surrounded by sick and dying patients with limited resources to treat them.

Speaker 3: 01:27 If we really didn't feel like there was much we could do for that patient, we would move on and you could see the frightened, the rise because they knew it. And that took a lot of time to sort of come to terms with

Speaker 2: 01:39 Another reservist from Florida, Lieutenant Colonel, Raj to Lottie worked as an attending physician at Jacobi. He says it was hard to see patients without their loved ones nearby. Since visitation at hospitals was banned for safety measures. He got emotional as he remembered holding some patient's hands. So they wouldn't be alone

Speaker 1: 01:57 As a provider when somebody dies. It's not their family. It's, it's tough to have to be a family for a lot of people

Speaker 2: 02:07 Over time, the situation got better at Jacobi hospital staff played Rachel Platten fight song over the loudspeakers. As patients were taken off breathing tubes and Frank Sinatra's, New York, New York, when patients went home, as the days went on, the music played more often. Colonel Jennifer, Robin Ratcliffe helped lead the New York mission. She was involved in the complicated decision of when the reservists could leave though, the disease hasn't gone away. Once hospitals were mostly treating non coronavirus patients, they decided it was time. I know we can take care of everybody, but I honestly believe people survived this disease and went home to their families because the military was there to help them. Now, the hundreds of reservists who served in New York hospitals have come home. They were ordered to quarantine for two weeks. Lieutenant O'Brien chose to do so at the base hotel at MacDill out concern for his infant daughter, Ratcliffe went home to her dogs and to Lottie returned to his wife and teenage sons. They're eager to return to some sense of normal life, but know that may not be possible, especially with cases on the rise and Florida and other parts of the country to lobby is urging everyone to follow public health guidelines about physical distancing and wearing masks.

Speaker 1: 03:21 It doesn't affect you until you see these people die and we need to be mindful of it's not over. We don't need any more unnecessary deaths on something that's preventable.

Speaker 2: 03:32 The reservists said, they talked with leadership about whether they would need to deploy again. If another health care system gets overwhelmed and while it doesn't seem likely, they know it's possible. All three said, they'd willingly answer the call, but hope for everyone's sake, they don't have to. I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

Speaker 1: 03:51 This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.