ALBANY, Ga. – Members of the National Guard have the unique opportunity to help the communities where they live during times of crisis. They may clear the roads they take to work every day after a hurricane or hand out water and other supplies to their neighbors. Now, during the COVID-19 response effort, Guard members are answering a more personal kind of call. The hours are longer, the stakes are higher, and it often comes with a familiar cost for Soldiers, being away from family.
That’s what Spc. Leslie Davila, a medic with 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Georgia Army National Guard, expected when she was assigned to the Medical Support Team, or MST, at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany. But her son, Pfc. Luis Rosario, also a medic, assigned to the 878th Engineer Battalion, 648th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, joined the fight beside her.
“My son was with me on the first day,” she said. “They needed three volunteers, three medics to go in on the first day, and I volunteered us.”
MSTs, like the one Davila and Rosario are assigned to, help hospital staff care for the surge of patients who come in due to complications arising from COVID-19. According to Davila, their duties can range from recording vital signs, which frees up nurses to focus on their responsibilities, to preparing patients to see their families for the last time.
“They said ‘Hey, we need help on this unit,’ ” Davila recalled. “I said ‘OK, great.’ I ended up being in the MICU, which is the Medical Intensive Care Unit. We had 15 patients, and they were all COVID-19 positive, and 13 out of the 15 were intubated.”
Davila said the first day was especially challenging, as one of her patients died.
“I stayed in the room with him until he took his last breath, and that was a lot,” she said. “It was devastating, honestly.”
Although her son was not assigned to the same floor that day, the two kept in contact through text messaging.
“I would text him and we would meet downstairs by the Starbucks and just talk about it,” she said. “I was able to cry and just hug him, and that’s such a blessing because nobody really has a family member with them here. To have my son that I can go to and vice versa and just confide in and have as ultimate support is a true blessing.”
The MST command team ensures the medics are allowed downtime to decompress from their stressful jobs. They host game and movie nights and celebrate birthdays. For most Soldiers, this is an unfamiliar mission, as MSTs are not a function organic to the National Guard. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency, the National Guard had to rework the way it traditionally responds.
Guard members have had to innovate and do things they’re not used to, and possibly not comfortable with, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden, adjutant general, Georgia National Guard.
“We didn’t start preparing to do defense support to civil authorities when this pandemic was set upon our state, our nation, and the world,” said Carden. “We’ve been preparing to support civil authorities for the last 34 years that I’ve been in the Guard, and all the training and the interagency coordination that we’ve done have really paid off.”
Davila echoed Carden’s words when she spoke about her initial expectations for this mission.
“I don’t think anyone really expected to deal with COVID-19 and the pandemic that we’re facing, and it has been a lot, to be honest with you, mentally, emotionally, physically,” said Davila. “It’s a lot to take in, but we have a lot of support, and that has definitely helped keep us on track with our mission and our purpose here.”
Davila said the greatest reward has been being able to have a positive impact on her patients and provide them with a personable, human experience during an especially lonely and frightening time in their lives, all while representing the Georgia National Guard.
“When I walk into a patient’s room, I introduce myself and let them know that I’m a medic with the Army National Guard,” she said “To them it’s great, they’re excited, and they’re thankful that we’re there. The patients are thankful as well as the staff.”
Davila is also proud of her son. Choosing the same military occupational specialty as he did allows her a deeper appreciation of the work he is doing to combat this “invisible enemy.” Not only are they together during a time when so many are separated from their family, but they can also relate as Soldiers in the same fight.
“I am a trained Soldier to fight an enemy with a weapon,” she said, recalling a pep-talk she gave herself before her first shift. “This is different. They compare this to a war zone when you’re in these intensive care units. You’re walking into a room where there’s an enemy that you cannot see, and your weapon is your PPE, not your rifle. It’s different than what we’ve been trained for, but at the same time, we need to execute our mission.”