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Military & Veterans' Issues

San Antonio Army Doc Treated COVID-19 Patients At NYC's Javits Center

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U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Nathaniel Gayle, 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment | https://bit.ly/2A7Ndao
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One of the last remaining patients at Javits New York Medical Station, N.Y., is released and heads home May 1, 2020.

New York was one of the states in the country hit hardest by coronavirus, with hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases.

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Credit U.S. Army photo by Pvt 1st Class Genesis Miranda | https://bit.ly/2A8Zyvi
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U.S. Army Lt. Col. Guy Clifton, a general surgeon at Javits convention center, New York City, provides assistance to the local hospitals throughout the five boroughs, April 22, 2020. Clifton has worked with local hospital officials since his arrival by identifying hospital personnel and equipment needs, and assisting in patient care.

Two Army hospital centers, including the Javits Center, were set up at the pandemic’s outset to tamp down a hotspot in New York City.

Lt. Col. Guy Clifton of the 9th Hospital Center was there treating patients until May. The Brooke Army Medical Center surgical oncologist recently emerged from quarantine and spoke with TPR’s Carson Frame.

CF: What were you initial feelings about this assignment, with all the risks involved and only about 48 hours’ notice?

GC: You know, I was nervous. I think everybody was…there's just so many unknown with the virus, especially at that time, but I was excited for the opportunity to, to help where they needed help.

CF: So when you first arrived on the ground in New York—you headed to the Javits Center, which was supposed to turn into, basically, a military field hospital. Tell me about what the setup looked like.

GC: So the Javits Center is a giant convention center. So as you can imagine, it's got a very big open space. I think it was well set up for this in some ways because it had electrical and water and gas hookups sort of built into the floor. And so the Corps of Engineers had come in and equipped the hospital and were basically setting up the the beds and the little rooms as we arrived. I couldn't tell you the exact number of beds, but there were multiple thousands available.
The initial mission when we got there was to help offload the local hospitals by taking patients who didn't have COVID specifically. And so that was how we set up initially, and that changed after several days. So we shifted, I think the announcement was made on April 3, to entirely COVID.

CF: I mean, what happened there? What was the turning point?

GC: It was due to the fact that there just wasn't that much of a need for non COVID-patients, basically, the hospitals in New York City were full of patients with COVID. And I mean… a lot of the normal, routine… I guess would be called routine emergencies…. just weren't materializing at the same rate that they had previously. You know, that's a phenomenon that's been seen throughout the country. And it’s a curious one.

CF: It sounds like patients were avoiding going to the hospital altogether—even if they really needed to. Like they were going above and beyond health recommendations.

GC:  So certainly, people were staying home from non-urgent procedures. But the real interesting part is that people were staying home from what normally would be an urgent or an emergent one. So like the heart attacks, the gastrointestinal bleeding. …The rates of those dropped too…I think people were scared to go to the hospital. …I think we as a medical community don't fully understand where all of those people went or what happened to them. And that's something that, you know, needs clarification with research. But yeah.

CF: Once COVID patients starting becoming the main focus, did you come up against anything that really surprised you? As far as how the virus behaves?

GC: There were a lot of surprises as far as I mean, one is …that patients can be symptomatic, but okay for, you know, a week or more and then all of a sudden have sort of a precipitous decline in the respiratory status, which is a little bit atypical. And then some of the other non pulmonary manifestations as far as cardiac issues associated with it, and then, specifically blood clotting issues with it. So strokes or high rates of blood clots were all a surprise, you know, to the medical community as we learned about it. And made care for it more challenging in a lot of ways.

CF: Once the Javits Center had transitioned fully into a functioning hospital, how did your role change?

GC: initially we received a handful patients and then groups of us went out to the local hospitals, to help educate them on what our capabilities were, and to evaluate patients and facilitate their transfer…Most of my job was to be a liaison.

CF: In that time when you were going between hospitals in New York and sort of seeing COVID overtake the city in real-time, did anything really stay with you?

GC: There were a few things that stood out that I'll remember.. one was the going to a couple hospitals in particular and seeing…how overwhelmed they were from a from a patient flow standpoint. You know, when the hospital runs out of room… the patients still show up. And so they tend to stack up in certain areas, whether it be in hallways, or in the emergency department. And so there were times where some of those scenes were very jarring as far as just.. the amount of patients that these hospitals were having to deal with.

CF: By the time you left, what did the situation look like, in terms of hospital capacity?

GC: it seems like the hospitals there had a had a handle on it when we left and it made it..more satisfying and more comfortable for me to leave. I wouldn't have wanted to leave them the way we found them

CF: I mean, did being there make you reevaluate anything about yourself or your life, whether professionally or otherwise?

GC: I think so. I mean…I normally I treat cancer and do surgery. And you know, sometimes I feel like oh, this is like, the most important thing and it is an important thing. But it kind of shows you that…a virus…when it comes through all of a sudden…it can make other health issues …more pressing on a community level. And it just goes to show you that…even if you have specialty training or expertise in one area, that having good background general medical knowledge helps you to be… you can help in more than one way. And I think, you know, the experiences I've had in the military as far as being adaptable, and from deployments and stuff like that certainly help in this situation just to work outside of your normal comfort zone. But to do the best for the people you can.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.

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