Disaster Medical Assistance Team “a Godsend”

DMAT member Linda Paquette returns to the COVID-19 unit at Campbell County Memorial Hospital on October 25, 2020.
DMAT member Linda Paquette returns to the COVID-19 unit at Campbell County Memorial Hospital on Oct. 25.

While most of Campbell County was enjoying Thanksgiving with family, members of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) Connecticut 1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) were at Campbell County Memorial Hospital (CCMH) assisting local resources with the surge in COVID-19 patients.

Brought to Wyoming at the request of Governor Mark Gordon (County 17, Nov. 19), DMAT was split in half, with half of the team going to Gillette and the other going to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. The 15 members of the team in Gillette touched down last Saturday, Nov. 21, and were at work at CCMH the next day, according to DMAT member David Cruickshank. Some DMAT members were at CCMH the same day they arrived, getting up to speed on the facility and its processes before caring for patients the following day.

“It has been a godsend to have these guys,” said CCMH Director of Medical/Surgical ICU Sherry Bailey.

This is not the Connecticut 1 team’s first deployment related to COVID-19. The team was first dispatched to assist with the quarantine and treatment of COVID-19 patients aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. At the time, the U.S. was just beginning to be heavily impacted by COVID-19 and much has been learned about the virus in the past months.

A spike and some necessary help

According to Bailey, the COVID-19 spike in November was impacting CCMH’s ability to staff its units and DMAT has given nurses a mental break because of the availability of extra hands. Additionally, DMAT has relieved stress on CCMH staff who would otherwise be forced to take on extra patients since COVID-19 exposure has forced some CCMH staff to quarantine and taken them out of the pool that would usually be drawn upon.

DMAT members benefit from their own experience in their full-time jobs and careers. DMAT nurses serve as nurses in their home communities, just as DMAT doctors serve as healthcare professionals at home. That doesn’t mean that they don’t all help out where needed, with Cruickshank saying that when tents need setup, everybody helps setup tents, and that everybody in the team jumps in where they are needed.

At CCMH, DMAT members have been active in the COVID-19 unit at the ICU, in the Emergency Room and with testing.

A team of volunteers

According to information from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, DMAT is part of the larger National Disaster Medical System (NDMS). NDMS teams are made up of almost 5,000 healthcare professionals who usually serve their local communities as doctors, nurses, paramedics, dentists, and other healthcare personnel, but when needed, respond to emergencies around the U.S. and world.

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Much like the national guard and reserve, NDMS members are subject to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA gives citizens the ability to participate in DMAT, the national guard, or similar uniformed services without their civilian careers being negatively impacted.

Cruickshank began work with DMAT as an EMT. Since retiring from law enforcement, he now teaches criminal justice at a Connecticut high school. His students have a substitute teacher now, but he will be returning to class when DMAT no longer calls his team up for service.

DMAT members volunteer for three- to six-months per year by selecting times that they are available for call. Prior to the most recent round of hurricanes and now COVID-19, the Connecticut 1 team had gone almost five years without being called out.

The deployment to Campbell County has been unique for the team in a lot of ways. Instead of responding to a disaster area after a hurricane or tornado, where they are often transported on military aircraft, DMAT members from the Connecticut 1 team traveled to Gillette on commercial air service.

Additionally, the team was able to come into a functioning and equipped hospital, as opposed to setting up hospital tents and bringing in all of their own equipment, eliminating many of the logistical issues the team often faces.

According to Dave Murphy, whose job is usually as an EMS operations supervisor in Ridgefield, Connecticut, the job is different than responding to a hurricane, “but we’re still taking care of people.”

At CCMH, Murphy is helping with CCMH’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing. His work is non-stop, with patients scheduled every 10 minutes. In fact, he doesn’t have time for a formal interview and steps into the hallway for only a few minutes to talk. Like others DMAT members, you can see pride in Murphy’s work.

This is Murphy’s first COVID-19 service and though it is tough on his family that he is gone for the holiday, he says it is easier since his kids are grown.

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For DMAT members it’s all about the work. They are in a location for 14 days and work 12 hour shifts all 14 days. And when they’re done in a location, that does not mean they are done – the team could be asked to extend their time in Gillette or be dispatched to another location the day following their 14-day service in Gillette.

A lifetime of service

Lynda Paquette is a retired nurse with over 50 years of experience, with 20 years as a traveling nurse. She assisted her mom in the Red Cross when she was young, including assisting with trauma nursing when she was in junior high. She is from Vermont and remarks that she can “walk across the bridge into New Hampshire” or ride her bicycle into Canada. Paquette has been with DMAT for about 10 years.

A soft-spoken woman, Paquette has kind eyes and her passion for healthcare is evident when you first meet her.

She is a member of New Hampshire 1 DMAT but is backfilling for Connecticut 1. Her backfilling brought her to Gillette.

Paquette went to Haiti in 2010 with a surgical crew from New Hampshire. When she returned to the U.S., she knew she wanted to continue her medical service in a similar way. She found DMAT. After retiring from her full-time nursing career last year, Paquette now works completely with DMAT.

She has traveled with DMAT to New York for Hurricane Sandy and to Corpus Christi, Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico. All of her deployments in 2020 have been for COVID-19. CCMH was her fifth COVID-19 deployment.

She describes the DMAT work simply, saying they get up in the morning, have a huddle and get to work. At the end of the day, they head back to the hotel, have a huddle and go to bed. Paquette reiterates how rewarding her DMAT service is and that she appreciates the opportunity she has been given to teach COVID-19 care to new people.

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“When you get home you are tired, but you feel good. You have done some very good work and you have seen the patients smile, you have seen their respirations get better, and you have seen their lab work get better. You have them day-to-day-to-day – the same patients. Then you discharge them. That’s such a nice feeling to say bye to them […] and that they are feeling better and can go home to their families.”

DMAT member Linda Paquette putting on PPE before returning to the COVID-19 unit at Campbell County Memorial Hospital on October 25, 2020.
DMAT member Linda Paquette putting on PPE before returning to the COVID-19 unit at Campbell County Memorial Hospital on October 25, 2020.

Learning new things

CCMH’s Bailey also appreciates the opportunity for CCMH staff to learn new techniques for treating COVID-19 patients and for networking within the healthcare industry that comes with DMAT.

Bailey was particularly impressed by DMAT members’ ability to get up to speed so quickly at CCMH, making note that when CCMH hires a new nurse there can be a four- to six-week orientation period to understand computer software, processes and procedures. DMAT members get a couple of hours training and are immediately at work treating patients – they quite literally hit the ground running.

And it appears that the DMAT team feels good about CCMH.

“The staff is awesome – totally awesome. They are patient and kind. They educate,” Paquette said.

CCMH’s Bailey adds that even though we’re a small town, local COVID-19 patients get remdesivir treatments and convalescent plasma just like somebody in New York or other large cities and DMAT brings knowledge from their other deployments to CCMH and its patients.

“We just come in and take care of the patients and make sure the nursing staff is taken care of too,” Paquette said.

A continuing need?

As of the publication of this story, Wyoming has 29,053 total lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 21,254 recovered cases according to information from the Wyoming Department of Health. There are 7,799 active cases in the Cowboy State and have been 215 deaths. There are another 4,252 probable cases and 3,224 recovered probable cases.

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Campbell County has 2,792 lab confirmed cases and 1,992 recovered cases. There are 800 active cases in the county and have been 12 deaths. There are another 245 probable cases and 164 probable case recoveries.

The U.S. has exceeded 13.6 million cases of COVID-19 and seen 268 thousand deaths.

According to self-reported information on current hospitalized COVID-19 patients from the State of Wyoming, there are 18 current COVID-19 patients at CCMH. Cheyenne Regional Medical Center has 64 and Wyoming Medical Center in Casper has 66. CCMH has seven used ICU beds and one ICU bed available.

CCMH has requested an extension of DMAT’s stay in Campbell County, beyond the approved 14 days, but the ultimate decision about any extension lies with HHS.