I need to talk about this patriot for a minute. You can't see, but under this mask is my dad. He just returned home after being deployed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) to fight in one of our nation's COVID-19 hotspots, South Texas.
There is power in first-hand accounts. Many of you are probably like I was a few weeks ago, personally untouched by the virus. You've seen all the horrid stories of death on the news. You probably know a few people that have tested positive for the virus, but they haven't died. A coworker's friend's grandfather may have passed away, but still you haven't had to bury any of your own.
The most personal casualty for you up to this point has been your mental health and summer plans, which is no small thing, mind you. But the death is just far enough removed that the initial lock down adrenaline has worn thin and a numbness to it all has set in.
When my dad called me last week, my heart began to pound. I knew that he had deployed with NDMS. He been running off to disasters for more than 15 years now, ever since seeing the devastation caused from Hurricane Katrina. As a member of the NDMS Disaster Medical Assistance Team in Tennessee he sets up medical tents and triages and treats patients who have survived hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes... he was even in Haiti after the earthquake that killed 220,000 people in 2010. He's seen some of the worst natural disasters recorded in our lifetime. But he's never called me on a deployment before. He's never had the time. So when the phone rang, I leapt out of my seat and answered the call. I quickly realized he still didn't have the time, he had TO MAKE the time. For his own well-being, he needed to tell me his story.
"I lost count of all the code blues today," he said. I had never heard him so tired, fearful, or overwhelmed. The hospital he was deployed to normally has one intensive care unit (ICU) with 50 beds. He was operating out of the hospital’s fourth make-shift ICU in the basement. The hospital was overrun with COVID. What was one floor of ICU patients had turned into four floors scattered between three different buildings within a matter of days caring for approximately 270 patients. Added to this, was a waiting list from surrounding hospitals desperate to send patients to a hospital where more resources existed.
"We only hydrate before and after our shifts," he said. They were too afraid to lift their masks while they were in the hospital. Death was all around them. Every time the intercom crackled, a room number was announced and the battalion of scrubs scrambled. Another patient, dead. When they changed shifts, the incoming doctors asked for the list of rooms that would not make it through the night...the list was endless.
"I looked over at my colleagues in the elevator and I wondered, is it me or you today?" he said. While he was deployed four of the staff fell ill to COVID-19, including the director of the ICU. The more one works, the more tired one gets, the more susceptible one becomes to the virus. NDMS has deployed thousands of health care professionals throughout the U.S. but there still wasn't enough help. During a round, he would call for nurses or respiratory therapists. An hour later they would run in, apologize, and call out the room number that had coded and kept them preoccupied.
"They're all dying alone," he said. He had to call the wife or the son/daughter of the patient and tell them their loved one was not going to make it through the night. The nurses held up iPads as the family wailed on the screen saying their goodbyes. When the call ended, the nurse dialed another number and ran to the next room.
"This is a pandemic," he said.
My dad is home now after serving 14-days of 12 hour shifts. This is what he is trained to do. It’s his personal call to help others when others are at their most vulnerable.
“I’ve already gotten called up for my next mission,” he said to me a few days after his return. As a federal intermittent employee with NDMS my dad can turn down a deployment, and some providers do because of their regular full-time health care jobs in their own communities. I know my dad won’t turn them down. If there is a way he can go, if he can make sure his shifts are covered, he will always go. He always does.
I share this story because I am proud of my father. I hope that his experience can enlighten your decision to practice good protective measures. We all have a role to play. Stay home as much as possible and otherwise practice social distancing, and wear a face mask. I have seen and heard bold displays of willful ignorance in the name of "patriotism." But this is not patriotic. It's traitorous to the medical workers risking their lives to save our countrymen. Just like a bullet can kill a soldier in battle, so can your cough on a vulnerable citizen.
Real patriots wear masks. You can save a life. You can save my dad's life.
For more information on how to help stop the spread of COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions webpage “How to Protect Yourself & Others.” For more information about NDMS, and other deployable resources made available by HHS and its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, visit
Are you interested in taking on new challenges to protect health and save lives during disasters and public health emergencies? If so, join our NDMS teams. We are currently hiring physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, respiratory therapists, paramedics, and physician assistants.