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Military & Veterans' Issues

'A Collective Sigh Of Relief': Army Team Fights Staff Burnout At Baptist Medical Center

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U.S. Army photo by Luis A. Deya
U.S. Army Capt. Mieke Carifee, critical care nurse, assisted Jackie Hernandez, registered nurse from Baptist Hospital, with an oxygen tube exchange on a patient. Her team comes from the 627th Hospital Center at Fort Carson, CO.

Nearly 600 military medical personnel have been deployed around Texas to help hospitals scrambling to keep up with the demand for bed space, staff and supplies. San Antonio’s own Baptist Medical Center faced a deluge of coronavirus patients in the weeks after Memorial Day. A 23-person Army team has been entrenched in that fight since early July. 

Army nurse Mieke Carifee has developed an almost bat-like sense of hearing since she arrived at Baptist Medical Center. She works in a COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit, where different machines sound alarms almost constantly. 

“You get attuned to ‘Oh, that's a feeding pump. Whose feeding pump has gone off?’” she said. “Then you're like, ‘Oh, that's an IV pump. Okay, where is that?’ So you walk around the unit looking to see who's whose pump is going off so that you can make sure that it's taken care of in a timely fashion.”

Carifee is one of 23 Army medical personnel deployed to Baptist Medical Center to help stabilize the hospital and give its staff a much-needed break. The 32 year-old lives in a nearby hotel and works 12-hour shifts. 

“Before we even came in, we had heard that the nurses were taking four ICU patients, which is a lot,” Carifee explained. “Normally ICU nurses take one to two patients.”

Another member of the Army team, Sgt. 1st Class Sharia Leal, came in with similar expectations as far as patient load. 

“We basically knew from our command team that it was a hot zone,” she said. 

Leal is a preventive medicine specialist who was deployed to Iraq and to Seattle during that city’s COVID crisis. Part of her job is making sure medical staff around Baptist have proper PPE — and that they’re following protocol when it comes to infection control.

She occasionally offers a comforting word to patients, too. On her first day of work in San Antonio, Leal toured a unit full of COVID patients, where she was reminded of the virus’ speed and destructive potential.

“The COVID unit that I went into wasn't one where they're actually intubated, but they are getting some sort of help breathing,” she said. “At that point, you can also see kind of like a little bit of a fear in the patient's eye. Because COVID is just such a scary disease.”

When the team landed in San Antonio, they found Baptist Medical Center stretched thin, its layout and staff having shifted to accommodate COVID patients at different stages of the disease. 

Connie Thigpen, Baptist’s ICU director, remembers when the Army arrived.

“It was a collective sigh of relief,” she said. “They have aided so much in not only the physical load, but the mental load, the emotional load, just by sharing in that need to care for these patients in this COVID population.”

Army ICU nurses have taken on 20 shifts a week, sometimes caring for three to four COVID patients at a time. The Army also sent two internal medicine doctors, an infectious disease specialist, and a pulmonary critical care physician — along with other medical staff. 

Their presence has enabled Baptist to nearly double its ICU capacity, from 30 beds to 56. They’re also helping to prevent burnout, which the hospital’s chief medical officer Lynnette Watkins, said is a big issue. 

“In addition to being able to expand our staffing of staff beds, the influx of our colleagues also affords our physicians, nurses and ancillary support staff, a bit of rest and downtime,” said Watkins.

COVID admissions to Baptist have decreased since the Army team showed up. But the hospital is still nearly full with COVID and non-COVID patients. 

But ICU head Nurse Connie Thigpen is anticipating the worst.

“I think that we're far from being over. We may be in somewhat of a lull statewide right now, but I certainly hope people don't see that and gain a false sense of security. Because we have so many other challenging things coming up with the reopening of school, flu season… so many unknowns.”

Despite that, the Army’s deployment to Baptist could end as early September, according to one hospital official. The Army wasn’t able to confirm that. 

Army Captain and ICU nurse Mieke Carifee, who has never been deployed to a combat zone, said working in a civilian hospital has caused her to adjust her expectations for her military career.  

“We'd always heard about supporting the civilian missions… but it just wasn't very prevalent,” she said. “And… we talk about that frequently within our group. That things are changing with how we're deployed.”

Carifee added she’s ready to fulfill her mission, no matter what it looks like or where it takes her. 

“It's just a different battlefield for the day, you know?”

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

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