Steven Wiseman packed his duffel bag, said goodbye to his wife and kids in Crozet, pinned on his captain’s bars, took some time off from work and went to Texas to fight.
It wasn’t a new battle for the Army Reserve officer. It was just more of the same war he’d been waging as a nurse in the University of Virginia Medical Center’s COVID care units.
“… When COVID started hitting hard in this country, everybody in the Army Reserve medical units thought we’d be involved at some point,” Wiseman recalled from his current post at Valley Baptist Hospital in Harlingen, Texas.
“I assumed it would be coming at some point or another. I had a lot of friends who went before me,” he recalled. “I think [the Army was] trying not to rob staff from other hospitals all at once, but the need is out there.”
Wiseman is a member of Urban Augmentation Military Task Force 7458. Known as UAMTFs, the units are deployed by the Army Reserve Medical Command, Southeast Medical Area Readiness Support Group, to help hospitals whose medical staffs are slammed by COVID-19 cases.
The 85-person outfits augment the civilian medical community with a range of critical medical capabilities. Each task force includes doctors, nurses, combat medics, respiratory specialists and other personnel.
Wiseman’s unit is one of six sent to south Texas to help meet the need for more personnel.
“Need is an understatement,” said Angelica Anaya, director of the COVID care units at Valley Baptist Hospital. “Our staff is working hard and they desperately needed help. We were looking to our left and our right to determine how we were going to safely staff our facility.”
When the pandemic first reached the United States, Texas cracked down as hard as Virginia. Restaurants and bars were closed and unnecessary travel was discouraged. For a while, things were under control, Anaya said.
“In March, we got the first cases and the hospital set up specialty units to handle the patients,” she said. “As the virus progressed, we noticed peaks and valleys in the number of patients we had, but we had a good grasp of things. We were busy, but we weren’t overwhelmed.”
In April, the staff got a break as the number of COVID cases dropped.
“We had time to look at what we were doing and find better ways to do it,” she said. “When the cases were negligible, we were able to cover that.”
In June, the state loosened its restrictions and the virus took off, especially among guests from nearby Padre Island.
“People had more respect for it at first because it was new. The nursing home cases were the first reported and then it spread to caregivers,” Anaya recalled. “Coming into April, we thought we had a grasp on it. Then the state relaxed the restrictions. We saw people relaxing the rules and then we saw the immediate impact.”
The sick, she said, came in hordes.
“We were starting to get additional cases coming in and patients who came in for other reasons were testing positive and became COVID patients, as well. We started seeing whole families come in and we began converting other units of the hospital to COVID units,” Anaya said.
Traveling nurses helped the hospital crews tend to the patients, but the virus kept spreading and more and more people were getting sick and sicker. Some were in the intensive care units for weeks and the COVID units for a month.
“At some point, the volume was so high that even with 180 nurses, it just wasn’t enough,” Anaya said. “We got to the point where we had more COVID units than non-COVID units in the hospital and our staff was wearing out.”
Enter the U.S. Department of Defense and the UAMTFs. The first UAMTFs to arrive began treating patients in July.
“That was a relief. We knew that with the military coming in, they would bring a certain skill and culture with them that would help us out,” Anaya said.
For Wiseman, the disease, its progression, its impacts and its deadly nature were known through his experience working at UVa.
“I was in the provider role [at UVa] and that made it easier for sure. I knew what COVID could do and what treatments were available and was familiar with the technology. It wasn’t strange to me,” he recalled.
What he wasn’t expecting was more than 350 patients needing intense care all at once.
“Not only were volumes picking up, but patients in this area have co-morbidities such as diabetes and kidney issues, problems they live with until they are exposed to the virus,” he said. “With those other medical issues, as COVID progresses, patients get sicker and sicker.”
Wiseman said it didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t in Charlottesville anymore.
“There’s no comparison. It’s the same disease process, for sure, but as far as numbers, the challenges [at UVa] weren’t that high,” he said.
“With so many patients, it’s not easy to practice what we consider good medicine, giving each patient individual attention and providing that high level of personal care. That’s because it’s a constant game of figuring out what the problems are, how many patients you have, who needs what type of care and trying to work around it.”
For the hospital staff, the military teams were godsends.
“My role is to do what I can to help those frontline nurses and doctors who are going in there every day and the people who are patients who are sometimes in there for two months with no visitation and no contact with their family,” Anaya said.
“It’s hard on them and it’s hard on our staff because some of them are very sick and they’ve lost loved ones to the very same disease. They know how serious it is. Others don’t know that there is a loved one in the hospital with them or that they may never see them again,” she said.
“This is a community where we were treating literally whole families who were admitted and who had already lost a parent or a brother or a sister,” Wiseman said. “You’re taking care of a patient knowing they had already lost a family member and are concerned about getting out themselves. You really feel for that patient and know this has been a big impact on their lives.”
“When this first started, it was terror for some of our people to walk into that room, knowing they won’t come out for a while and what’s going on in there,” Anaya said. “It’s difficult to walk through those doors and come out 14 hours later.”
Both Anaya and Wiseman say taking precautions against the virus, such as wearing masks and keeping distance, helps them out by decreasing the number of patients.
“Because it’s not tangible, people seem to not take it seriously or they get complacent,” Anaya said. “We thought we had this beat. It went away for a little bit and we let our guard down and it came back. It’s out there. These are the consequences.”
“People need to continue to do what they’re being asked to do. Wear masks, keep a distance between them,” Wiseman said. “This is not something you want to get, and that cannot be said enough. Simply because you haven’t had it doesn’t mean is it’s not still happening. If you have the ability to make it not happen, you should.”
For Wiseman, his family back in Crozet helps him through the crazy days.
“I have the two coolest kids and the most amazing wife in the world. Thankfully, we have tools that help keep me connected with family and friends,” he said. “I feel good about the fact that I was able to step up and help. This community has done some pretty amazing things to get through what they need to do.”