When UWindsor nursing professor Kate Kemplin was asked to direct a field hospital for COVID-19 patients in New York City, she answered the call.
Dr. Kemplin took a leave of absence to serve as chief nursing officer and deputy director of the Ryan Larkin New York Presbyterian Field Hospital, a 220-bed COVID-19 facility housed at Columbia University’s athletic dome. It is supported by New York Presbyterian Hospital, a non-profit academic medical system affiliated with Columbia and Cornell schools of medicine and nursing.
Kemplin, a Canadian who joined UWindsor’s nursing faculty in January after teaching at the University of Tennessee, is leading 120 nurses and other staff during the pandemic. A civilian clinician who worked for the U.S. Army in emergency medicine, she was recruited to co-command the hospital by Melissa Givens, a retired U.S. colonel physician with whom Kemplin worked previously. Dr. Givens has established field hospitals for the U.S. military overseas in the past and, together with their advance team, she and Kemplin got the 220-bed hospital operational in just six days, admitting the first patients on April 14.
“It’s nearly everything you would have in a normal brick-and-mortar hospital, but under a dome,” Kemplin said.
The field house is known as “the Bubble,” a positive-pressure environment in which all patients are COVID-positive, presenting unique challenges for protecting staff. After reviewing best practices and lessons learned worldwide, Kemplin employed strict mandates for personal protective equipment to protect staff.
“Nurses are not expendable and I will protect them with every tool at my disposal,” she said. “To date, no staff working here have exhibited signs of COVID19 infection and we have passed initial incubation periods.”
The patients come from all over NYC. They are on the mend, but not fully recovered from the virus, Kemplin said. Most of the patients had been in hospital an average of three weeks before arriving. Kemplin said the greatest honour in serving in NYC has been getting patients home to their families, in addition to naming the field hospital. She named it after Ryan F. Larkin, a decorated U.S. Navy Seal medic who died by suicide in 2017 after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Larkin’s family donated his brain to the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the U.S. military’s medical school, the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. Findings suggest a link between suicide and brain trauma suffered in combat. Kemplin’s ex-husband, another former special operations service member who committed suicide in 2019, also had traumatic brain injury. Kemplin ensured his brain was sent to the same laboratory after his death.
The suicide rate among special operations military members is three times that of the regular population, said Kemplin, whose second doctorate focusses on resilience and suicide in special operations populations. Her research, as well as being a military spouse, has kept Kemplin involved with military medical communities. When she and Givens put out a call to colleagues for medical staff to work in the field hospital, about 700 people with military ties responded in the first 48 hours.
“There was no hesitation. These are people accustomed to serving in any circumstance,” Kemplin said. “By their training, they rush into dangerous situations,”
The field hospital is an opportunity for highly-trained Special Operations Forces medics to practise at the top of their scope in a civilian setting, Kemplin said.
“These medics are clinically equivalent to flight nurses and intensive care staff, but civilian healthcare entities typically under-employ them when they leave military service.”
Even if their homes are local, the staff at the field hospital stay in hotels to protect their families from possible exposure to the virus. They use Facetime and phone calls to keep in touch, just as they would if they were serving in any other military operation.
“These are people used to deploying, and their experiences overseas are immensely helpful to staff away from their families for the first time” Kemplin said.
Kemplin said the acts of kindness by staff she witnesses on a daily basis in the field hospital brings tears to her eyes. She gives the example of witnessing the interaction between an elderly Latino patient and a Green Beret whose extensive training included learning Spanish. The medic was giving the man a shave, both of them chatting in Spanish and laughing.
“It was so touching,” Kemplin said. “That compassion — you can’t teach that.”
Similarly, another Green Beret trained to speak Russian is invaluable in treating patients from New York City’s Eastern European communities. Other special operations veterans on staff speak Korean, French, Arabic, Tagalog, or Mandarin.
The patients become like family, Kemplin said.
“The city has been terrorized by this virus, and these patients have been separated from their families for weeks. We treat them like family because in military life, we are each other’s family.”
A nod to the hospital’s namesake being a Navy Seal, the hospital installed an engraved nautical bell which is rung three times when a patient is discharged. “Patients ring the bell outside and we get up and cheer and clap every time someone goes home.”
Kemplin said the holistic nursing focus on the patients makes the field hospital a special place to work.
“No one is here for the glory. They are here for the patients… They’ve adopted this mission with their whole hearts. I wish everyone could work with a team this phenomenal just once in their careers.”
Of the roughly 282,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York state, 160,000 are in New York City. More than 12,000 people in the city have died from the virus and 30,000 have recovered.
“This pandemic is historic, and this initiative is as well,” Kemplin said of the field hospital. “I am incredibly honoured to be at its epicenter during a crucial time in nursing history.”