59th MDW team provides resilience support at U.S.’s COVID-19 epicenter

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  • 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- With over 2,000 service members deployed to New York City over the last several weeks, a team from the 59th Medical Wing is one of those providing mental health support to those assisting healthcare workers throughout the region.

Interspersed at hospitals throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts to augment hospital staffs, military healthcare workers are working long, stressful hours in intensive care units and are often seeing “more death and dying than they’ve ever seen in their careers,” according to Lt. Col. (Dr.) Belinda Kelly, 59th Medical Operations Squadron psychiatrist.

 “While medical providers in general are a very resilient force of people, many are facing challenges or situations they’ve never been faced with,” Kelly said. “[They are] dealing with the gravity of the loss; the significance of this pandemic and the mortality rates; the uncertainty of when this will all be over; and the unfortunate reality of not being able to make a difference in a patient’s outcome the way they thought they would.”

 Kelly and her team of five mental health specialists from the 559th Medical Operations Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, thus deployed to New York City to provide behavioral health support to their fellow healthcare workers.

 Notified on a Friday that they were leaving the following Monday, the team made arrangements for their homes, children and pets, relying on friends and family. They packed personal bags and what equipment they would need and flew to New York City.

 “My husband is in Kuwait, so my parents came to take care of [my three] children,” said Staff Sgt. Le’Aisha Smith, 559th Medical Operations Squadron mental health specialist. “It was incredibly difficult, especially since both of my parents were diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after I arrived here. But I’ve been in the military for twelve years and this isn’t the first time I’ve been called to go, I just take it in stride.”

 While facing challenges of their own, the team immediately hit the ground running upon arrival in New York, integrating with their U.S. Army counterparts from the 85th Combat Operational Stress Control out of Fort Hood, Texas. They began visiting hospitals where military members were assisting fellow healthcare workers throughout the Northeast.

 “We’re visiting people where they work to get an understanding of what stressors they’re experiencing on a daily basis,” said Kelly. “This kind of thing can affect them, maybe not now while they’re in the throes of it, but afterward, when they have time to think about it. We’re going around to gain the context of what they’re experiencing, letting them know we are here with them and for them.”

 The team also offers behavioral health sick call back at the hotels in which the healthcare workers are staying during their off hours.

 “If you’re not here and you’re just seeing it on TV, if it's not prevalent where you are, it may seem like something that is distant and can’t affect you. But it's real here,” Kelly said.

 Despite the overwhelming nature of the situation, Kelly and Smith both say that those they meet are grateful they can help their civilian healthcare counterparts through the pandemic.  

 “We join the military and we go wherever they tell us to go and it's usually a combat situation, but this is something completely different from that,” Kelly said. “In this kind of healthcare centered operation, we appreciate the ability to help our peers, our fellow healthcare providers. It's great to be a part of that fight.”

 The defense support of civil authorities requested through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is aiding hospitals throughout the U.S. at hard hit areas, particularly in the Northeastern United States. Military healthcare providers, religious support teams and mortuary affairs specialists are working side-by-side with their civilian counterparts in emergency centers and intensive care units in hospitals that have been at 150 to 200 percent capacity while also being understaffed.

 “The staff at these hospitals are so grateful for the help, for the extra hands, for the camaraderie,” Smith said, describing a scene of civilian healthcare workers clapping as their military helpers walked through hospital hallways. “Our military members have built relationships with the hospital staff that they’ll carry with them even after they leave.”