NEW YORK – When Elmhurst Hospital Center, the public hospital that became the epicenter of New York’s COVID-19 crisis, needed help, the pararescuemen of the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing jumped in.
The staff of the 545-bed hospital in Queens performed heroically. Still, they were eventually “overrun by the enemy, the enemy being the virus,” said Lt. Col. Stephen “Doc” Rush, the 106th Rescue Wing’s Medical Group commander and 103rd Rescue Squadron’s Pararescue flight surgeon.
“Hospital staff – especially the highly trained intensive care unit –needed help and our pararescue team, who are highly trained emergency medical specialists, were able to assist,” Rush said.
“Elmhurst was the worst-hit hospital, and they needed more people to do critical care,” Rush said.
Elmhurst Hospital sits in the center of several Queens neighborhoods, dubbed by The New York Times as the “epicenter” of the city’s COVID-19 outbreak.
The virus spread quickly through the densely populated immigrant neighborhoods, where people sometimes live crammed together and 800 languages are spoken, according to the newspaper.
When the people in the area got sick, they went to the Elmhurst Medical Center for help. The hospital’s intensive care unit, which normally held 35 patients, was overwhelmed with hundreds of people suffering from COVID-19.
So the hospital went to city emergency managers, who asked the New York National Guard to help. The Guard turned to the 106th Rescue Wing’s pararescuemen.
Known as PJs, short for the term pararescue jumper, the pararescuemen are trained to go behind enemy lines to rescue personnel and to respond to those in medical need around the world under any conditions.
Along with being trained in scuba-diving, high altitude parachuting, and survival, escape, evasion and resistance, they are also highly trained emergency trauma specialists.
A PJ must maintain an Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic qualification throughout their careers. With this medical and rescue expertise, along with their deployment capabilities, PJs can perform lifesaving missions in the world’s most remote and dangerous areas, according to the Air Force.
This background made the team from the 106th Rescue Wing the perfect people to send to Elmhurst Hospital, Rush said.
Led by Master Sgt. Matt Zimmer, a decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, 10 PJs went to work at Elmhurst on April 8.
“Things were as bad as everyone was saying,” Zimmer recalled. “They were certainly in need of a lot of support.”
The National Guard Airmen at Elmhurst joined more than 150 medical providers from the Army, Air Force Reserve and Navy Reserve, all deployed to New York City to assist in treating the wave of coronavirus patients.
“There were lines around the emergency room with the new patients that were testing positive for COVID,” he said. “So the hospital was already at its maximum when we showed up and the hospital staff had already been working overtime plus; 14, 16, 24 hours a day.”
“At some points, the staff were sleeping in the hospital just to manage the patients that were coming in and doing a tremendous job of it,” Zimmer said.
“The medical staff had already been doing this for a month,” Rush said. “There were young doctors pronouncing 10 people dead during a shift.”
The Airmen went to work managing the medical ventilators used to help patients lungs work and keep the most serious COVID-19 patients alive.
Because the hospital had expanded its intensive care system so quickly to handle the pandemic patients, there were now five or six kinds of ventilators for intensive care nurses to use, Rush said.
To make their jobs easier, the PJs trained to operate and manage the different ventilators. They would set up the systems, help intubate patients, and manage the ventilator supply, Rush explained.
The PJs were “force multipliers,” Rush said. They helped the doctors and nurses care for more patients by handling basic tasks.
The Airmen “created a mechanism for ventilator management and distribution that helped many of our patients return to their families,” said Dr. Alfredo Astua, a pulmonary expert who created the ventilator management program.
Along with managing ventilators, the PJs were also put to work conducting “prone positional therapy”, known as “proning.”
Proning means putting a patient on their stomach to improve their ability to breathe. But rolling over patients is physically demanding on providers, Rush said.
Because the PJs have to be in excellent physical shape, they were able to play a key role in moving patients when needed, he explained.
“Their work in proning patients translated into lives saved,” Astua said.
The team from the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the 106th Rescue Wing worked 12-hour shifts with five PJs on at a time.
They were initially supposed to be on duty for two weeks, but the mission was extended for another two weeks. More members were added, bringing the team strength up to 14 PJs.
A key reason for the PJs success on the mission are the skills each Airman brings to the mission, Zimmer said.
The team ranged in rank from senior Airman to senior master sergeant, Zimmer said, but the most junior member of the team, Senior Airman Adam Spinner, had recently graduated from medical school.
“The amazing part about being in the New York National Guard at the 106th Rescue Wing is the depth and breadth of knowledge that we not only have as a military force, but as a civilian force,” Zimmer said.
“Seeing the staff behind these walls treat their patients with dignity, honor and respect and the pride they have in the job they do and the commitment they have to the population and the patients they treat is outstanding. And it is outstanding to be a very small part of the team, and giving to them what they need from us has been an amazing experience,” Zimmer said.