NEW CASTLE, Del. – In April and May, during the coronavirus pandemic's height, 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 nearby Delaware Psychiatric Center.
"We're here, and we're available," said Maj. Debbie Hoffmann, a flight nurse with the Delaware Air National Guard's 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. "We're trained and ready, and we want to do this mission."
A total of 12 medical professionals with the Delaware Guard posted to the DPC following an April 8 statement by the state Department of Health and Social Services, or DHSS, that "five patients and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19." According to the information released, the patients were isolated within a unit at DPC, and staff members self-isolated at their respective homes.
The Delaware National Guard's Joint Operations Center received a request from the Delaware Emergency Management Agency on April 11, asking the National Guard to provide medical personnel to augment the remaining staff at the psychiatric center.
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," he said. "I just can't thank the men and women of the Guard enough."
The Guard's joint medical team arrived at the psychiatric center and ultimately organized across three different shifts to deliver care for, according to the Guard members, more than a dozen patients within the COVID-19 isolation unit.
Maj. Hoffmann, who serves in the National Guard in Delaware, but lives in Nashville, Tennessee, 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."
Hoffmann, a trained infection control nurse, said the medical team worked closely with the DPC staff members to organize the isolation unit better and figure out what equipment and supplies were needed to align with CDC guidelines.
"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 bring calm 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 helping people, and we're helping people in our state of Delaware," Graves said. "This whole COVID-19 thing has put a lot of stressors on vulnerable elements of the population, which are in this center, and with us coming in, we're able to take care of these patients."
Despite an obvious concern for possible exposure, the service members were thrilled that their medical expertise and technical know-how had benefited the health and well-being of the patients and staff.
"It makes me feel great," Hoffmann said. "I feel like I'm a big part of this, and I'm using my skills to the greatest extend possible. I turned down another mission to come here. [This] ended up being the perfect thing because they needed an infection control nurse."
"Our team was able to provide education and knowledge to the DPC staff members to understand better proper ways of handling isolation in a hospital setting," said Maj. Lixin Wang, a nurse practitioner with the Delaware Army National Guard, "which reduced their anxiety levels significantly."
The Guard's support mission, which ran from mid-April to mid-May, ended with 14-day precautionary quarantines by its service members. The teammates said they accomplished the daily minutiae of their duties, fully staffed the facility, and had success concerning the safeguarding and caring for their COVID-19 patients.
"We had a specific job," Graves said. "We assisted with client care, daily living tasks, accountability of clients, maintained PPE supplies and ensured that clients were maintaining social distancing. We also monitored vital signs and assisted other staff as needed."
"We were able to provide 24-hour support, five days a week," said Wang, also a nurse practitioner in her civilian job at the Wilmington Adult Medicine Clinic. "We had no hospital admissions among the patients from the isolation unit for COVID-related symptoms after we established our routine [there]."
Wang added that "more than half of the patients were cleared from isolation status and moved back to the regular unit for their routine care."
"On our last day, the remaining patients were healthy and recovering. They were just in a quarantine status," Graves said.
As of June 1, the handful of Soldiers and Airmen finished their quarantine periods, which officially marks a successful end to the DPC stabilization assignment.
"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," Wang said. "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."