Grantham nurse, reservist describes working in field hospital as ‘war zone’

  • Cherry Lynn Maglangit Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 10/16/2020 5:19:45 PM

Back in April when most New Hampshire residents were told to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, U.S. Army reserve critical care nurse Cherry Lynn Maglangit was called on to join a unique medical mission that brought together all branches of the military as well as civilian agencies to create field hospitals in cities throughout the country where she would fight on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“It was a joint military operation between the military and the civilian forces. We worked with the Department of Health and Human Services. All branches of the military were there – Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and the Army … It’s never been done before. We also worked in collaboration with FEMA,” she said.

She has since served two missions – Operation Gotham at the Javits Center in New York City and Operation Ready Warrior at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin – and is ready for a possible third mission if there is another wave that calls for it.

Maglangit of Grantham is an oncology nurse navigator at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon.

“Being in New York City at the Javits Center was personal to me because New York City was my community and home before I moved here to New Hampshire two years ago,” she said. “Witnessing the huge difference and emptiness of the streets during the pandemic was heartbreaking. It was unbelievable for someone who used to live there and witnessed its vibrant community.”

The first mission began in early April at Fort Devens in Massachusetts for training.

There were so many unknowns about the mission in the beginning, she said, from how many patients they would be caring for to how they would protect the medical workers from the virus, which evolved over time. “We didn’t have to wear masks until April 6,” she said.

Knowledge of symptoms was also sparse in early April, she said, saying that when some soldiers exhibited vomiting and diarrhea, which wasn’t known as a COVID symptom at that time, it was thought they had food poisoning, but then tested positive for COVID-19.

She was soon deployed to New York City for Operation Gotham in which the Javits Center was converted into a field hospital she helped run as a team leader.

Maglangit said her experience in New York was surreal. It was not the city she had once lived in, describing the empty streets, medical crews covered from head to toe in protective equipment and of course the patients suffering from the coronavirus. “It seems like you are in a zombie movie,” she said. “That’s how it really felt.”

At the Javits Center, Maglangit led a crew of eight team members, each of whom cared for up to 10 patients at a time. Maglangit, additionally, was responsible for up to eight patients at a time. As a team leader, it was her job to make sure her team members took breaks, she said.

She explained they had to wear so much protective equipment that many team members didn’t want to take a break for lunch or to use the bathroom since it took so long to take it on and off, keeping them from their patients. “Our shifts were a minimum of 13 hours per day,” she said. “It really felt like a war zone.”

Patient needs made for long days.

“You can’t leave until the patient is stabilized.”

Not having the time for your patients’ emotional needs, as a nurse, was also a challenge.

“That is your obligation as a nurse – to spend more time with them and help them through the grieving process, but there was no time for it because we had so many patients,” she said.

It was also painful to not allow family members to visit patients. She recalled an older patient whose wife died of COVID-19, but because he had COVID he could not leave the Javits Center, she said. “It was really heartbreaking that he was there and he couldn’t even go to the funeral.”

While the Javits Center had 4,000 beds ready, only 2,500 patients were taken in for care there. The patients came from hospital overflow, she said. After several weeks, the field hospital closed in early May and Maglangit returned to work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock after a quarantine period. After Operation Gotham, Maglangit said she expected to test positive for COVID-19.

“All of us came back negative. I was very surprised,” she said. “I was prepared to be COVID positive.”

In midsummer she was called again to serve, this time in Operation Ready Warrior at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin during which she cared for soldiers who had the virus. The mission only lasted 18 days, she said, and she returned home again to New Hampshire.

While less intense, she again expected to test positive for COVID, because of her exposure to the virus, but she didn’t. This gave Maglangit her greatest take away from her experience – the personal protective equipment – such as masks – hand washing and social distancing – even in a medical setting – work. “PPE really works,” she said. “Handwashing, social distancing really works.”

Maglangit has an open order to respond to more missions through the end of the year, meaning that she has to be prepared and available through the end of the year for another mission in another location. The government is anticipating a second wave, she said. Not unlike what happened in 1918 when the Spanish Flu hit the world, she said.

The century gone pandemic has also been on Maglangit’s mind. As soon as she took her first mission, Maglangit said she understood the historical nature of the pandemic and has been keeping a diary and documenting her experiences through photographs.

“It’s once in a lifetime,” she said. “It happened in 1918 and it’s been 100 years.”

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