PAWNEE, Okla. – Oklahoma Army National Guard Spc. Abigail Westfall, a medic with Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, donned a face shield, the final piece to her personal protective equipment required for administering COVID-19 tests at the Pawnee Indian Health Center April 30.
Westfall, also a load-out shift assistant for Amazon in her civilian career, has transitioned from working with drivers delivering packages to serving as a medic in the Oklahoma National Guard's support to the states whole-of-government COVID-19 response.
Medics activated at the direction and authorization of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are part of a versatile team made up of medics, nurses and a representative with the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Their region-specific mission includes testing staff and residents in long-term care facilities to help protect the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Westfall, on her first state activation as an Oklahoma Guard member, said she believes this is the best way she can personally give back to her community.
Spc. Kennedy Perez, also an Oklahoman National Guard member activated for the first time, said she feels the same.
Perez, a medic with 3120th Engineer Support Company, 120th Engineer Battalion, 90th Troop Command, has been serving in the Guard for more than two years. To become a medic, both she and Westfall completed 18 weeks of advanced individual training following basic training.
"Once we were brought on orders, we received additional training for real-life scenarios," Perez said. "The hands-on training helped us prepare for different [interactions with] residents."
After completing the additional training, the medics reported to their respective regions where they are serving for the duration of their activation.
"Before the pandemic I wasn't sure what one would do when activated," Perez said. "I really just wanted to help out.
A sentiment they both share.
"I was a little scared, but wanting to help outweighed that fear," Westfall said. "What I like about this mission is that we're out here helping Oklahoma get over this crisis."
Westfall recounts her visit at the Pawnee Indian Health Center as a thorough process that requires attention to even the little things.
"We start our mission outside of the facility," Westfall said. "Some days it has been warm outside. We put on our protective gear and that adds an additional layer of warmth. I remember sweat dropping down my cheek and my glasses had a fogginess. The [long-term care] facilities are warmer inside because [many of] the elderly population prefer warmer temperatures. It makes the process difficult, but I just have to remember that I cannot touch my face or I will cross-contaminate."
She begins the testing process by observing the behaviors of residents.
"I watch to see if they are hesitant or worried," Westfall said. "Once I'm in the room, I try to smile through the mask and then introduce myself."
The medics and nurses at the facility work together to streamline the process while working with residents. Some residents, unaware of the pandemic, express hesitation or a natural curiosity when samples are collected.
"I try to make them feel at ease," Westfall said. "I don't want to scare them. Once they realize that I am here to help, they will talk with me and show me pictures of their family members."
This mission touches home for both Perez and Westfall.
"Being in the long-term care facilities and helping in the community makes me feel optimistic," Perez said.
"My youngest cousin has respiratory problems," Westfall said. "It's been difficult not seeing my family members, but that is why missions like this are so important."
There are more than 350 Oklahoma National Guard members serving throughout the state, including 25 Oklahoma National Guard medics activated in response to COVID-19.