MEDFORD, Ore. – Oregon National Guardsmen are assisting more than 40 hospitals across the state struggling with heavy patient loads and short staffing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guardsmen handle critical, non-direct patient care roles, including COVID testing support, equipment sterilization and laundry and custodial services.
Staff Sgt. Nathan Browning, a 173rd Fighter Wing Airman, said he’s helping sterilize rooms in the emergency department after patients leave to make them ready for the next patient, a critical process ensuring pathogens aren’t passed from patient to patient.
“I like it; I did E.R. admissions over in Idaho for five or six years, so this is my old stomping grounds,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Donna Prigmore, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard, paid him and others a visit to thank them and explain why hospitals needed them.
“Think about filling a glass of water. You reach a point where it starts overflowing and you can’t put any more into it,” she said. “We’ve come close two times now in terms of that being the case for accessibility to hospitals, and a lot of people have no idea how close to dire it has become.”
With the specter of hospitals having to turn patients away, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked the National Guard to help cope with the rising tide of COVID.
Nearly 1,200 Guardsmen answered that call, helping out in their local hospitals and traveling across the state as well.
Col. Micah Lambert, 173rd FW vice commander, says it’s an integral part of serving in the National Guard. “Always ready, Always there. That is the National Guard motto, and it is being clearly demonstrated throughout Oregon this year.”
From Portland to Ashland to Enterprise and every place in between, service members are helping hospitals navigate a public health crisis without having to turn sick people away.
“Everyone is tired. It’s kind of like ground hog’s day; we just need a little relief to get ahead,” said Jackie DeSilva, the trauma program manager for Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, the largest hospital in the region.
Master Sgt. Timothy Lombardi, the team first sergeant at Asante Rouge Regional Medical Center, said Airman 1st Class Kylee Gonzales of the 173rd Maintenance Group racked up 42,000 steps — 17.96 miles —walking hospital hallways during a single day’s shift.
Another Airman, Tech. Sgt. Tyler Dunn of the 173rd Fighter Wing, spends many days at the hospital moving patients in wheelchairs — pushing them as far as five miles in a shift.
Army Staff Sgt. Manikanta Johnson, assigned to Oregon Training Command and a civilian firefighter and emergency medical technician when not wearing the uniform, volunteered for duty in the emergency room. Doctors and nurses say his skills are valuable as they treat critical injuries and provide lifesaving care at Providence Medford Medical Center.
“I just want to take a moment to say thank you for this help,” said Karen Bartalini, director of general service at Providence Hospital, emotion creeping into her voice and eyes growing misty.