During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a handful of specialized nurses and medics – all Citizen Soldiers and Airmen with the Delaware National Guard – cared for more than a dozen COVID-19 patients at the Delaware Psychiatric Center.
A total of 12 medical professionals with the Delaware Guard posted to the Delaware Psychiatric Center (DPC) after learning that a half dozen patients and three staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in early April.
According to the Delaware Division of Public Health, the patients were isolated within a unit at DPC, and staff members self-isolated at their respective homes.
For psychiatric patients, isloation created an extra layer of stress and anxiety, especially with the reduced staff.
On April 11, Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) asked the National Guard to provide medical personnel to augment the remaining staff at the psychiatric center, a state-operated facility on the grounds of the Herman M. Holloway Sr. Health and Social Services Campus.
In two days, the National Guard assembled, in-processed, and deployed a medical team under the umbrella of its Joint Task Force Medical, an element founded amid the pandemic to support health-related operations across the First State.
“The Delaware National Guard has always prided itself on being ready at a moment’s notice,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Berry, the adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard. “The speed in which the joint team of nurses and medics was able to assume its support mission and seamlessly augment their DHSS counterparts and care for our neighbors – who are patients there – lives up to the Always Ready, Always There motto of the National Guard.”
Gov. John Carney, who serves as commander-in-chief of the Delaware National Guard, spoke in May with Guard leadership about the service members at DPC.
“With the outbreak there, and the degree of confidence that your people – just being there, just their presence – instilled in the staff, enabling them to go to work, and to do the important work they do, is just incredible,” said Carney. “I just can’t thank the men and women of the guard enough.”
The Guard organized across three different shifts to deliver 24-hour care for patients in the COVID-19 isolation unit.
Maj. Debbie Hoffmann spearheaded the effort to train medical team personnel and procure equipment so they themselves would not be at risk of contracting the disease.
Hoffmann, a flight nurse with the Delaware Air National Guard’s 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, works full time as a registered nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“I float to every different clinic that Vanderbilt has, and three weeks before I came on this mission, I was working in the COVID testing center. We had 10 of them set up, and we were testing 1,000 patients a day, and I learned all about how to keep safe there [and] how not to get exposed.”
“We got everybody ready and trained to do it the right way – to keep any more patients from getting the disease,” Hoffmann said.
“This isn’t a medical facility, it’s a psychiatric center, so they’re not used to taking care of medical patients,” she added. “They’re used to them being here for their psychiatric reasons.”
A few Soldiers and Airmen posted at the psychiatric center, when asked in early May, said the guard group’s medical training and real-world experience significantly contributed to such a unique mission.
“Our military etiquette and our military mannerisms are bringing a calmness to the staff and the patients,” said Sgt. Ed Graves, a combat medic with the Delaware Army National Guard, who on the civilian side works as an EMT for Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and the American Legion Ambulance Services.
“The mission is important because we’re actually helping people, and we’re helping people in our state of Delaware,” Graves said. “This whole COVID-19 thing has really put a lot of stressors on vulnerable elements on the population, which are in this center, and with us coming in, we’re able to take care of these patients.”
The Guard’s support mission, which ran from mid-April to mid-May, ended with 14-day precautionary quarantines by its service members.
“I think the take away was that this mission was a unique and undefined role that highlighted that the Guard could handle diverse missions than what our stereotypical role of assisting in times of civil unrest,” Graves said. “The same goes for our food distribution and testing support [missions].”
“I am grateful to have the opportunity to work side by side with our brave soldiers and airmen in scrubs,” said Maj. Lixin Wang, a nurse practitioner with the Delaware Army National Guard. “We shared knowledge and expertise and supported each other every day and grew our friendships during the mission.”
“Even though I hope [that] we do not have to experience a pandemic again in my life, I was happy with my ability to contribute,” Graves said. “It was a satisfying mission. I think I speak for everyone on that.”
All photos courtesy of U.S. Army National Guard