News | Nov. 16, 2021

Helping Stop the Spread: Navy Medical Response Team supports Spokane Hospital

By Douglas Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Naval Hospital Bremerton/Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Bremerton

When U.S. Navy Lt. Therese Nicole De La Torre took part in a 200-mile relay run in July, she was prepared for the ordeal.

Stopping the spread of a highly infectious disease is proving to be a lot more challenging.

“With the relay, you knew how far you were going to be running and how hard to train in advance and your physical and mental limits,” said De La Torre. “Working on a fast-paced COVID cardiac ward, you do not always know what you are going to face on a day-to-day basis. Patient conditions change so rapidly. You have to think ahead, prepare for what could possibly happen instead of knowing exactly what the day will bring.”

De La Torre is part of Department of Defense (DoD) Medical Response Team (MRT) Bravo consisting of Navy doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists, sent in conjunction with U.S. Northern Command and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington deal with the spread of COVID-19 cases.

“We are under Joint Task Force Civil Support. While the medical team is all Navy, it really is a whole of government approach to fighting this. The services, our Washington State National Guard partners, Health and Human Services, and others are all involved in providing the support to make this happen,” said Navy Cmdr. Matthew Behil, MRT Spokane officer in charge.

The team, made up of personnel assigned from Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Commands Bremerton, Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, arrived Oct. 16, 2021. As a Navy Nurse Corps officer and certified medical-surgical registered nurse, De La Torre is working on a cardiac medical-surgical ward that currently doubles as a COVID-19 ward.

“I was very excited to join the team and be able to come out and support the community,” said De La Torre, a native of Strawn, Texas, with more than 18 years in the Navy and current primary care department head at Navy Medicine Readiness Training Unit Everett. “I hope to provide much needed support and relief at Sacred Heart, who have been fighting this COVID battle for almost two years.”

Behil affirmed that the Navy Medicine MRT is motivated to assist Sacred Heart staff in their on-going effort against the pandemic.

“Many of us have had the opportunity to be a part of overseas humanitarian missions, but to be able to be here at home and help our fellow citizens is extra special. It’s also been an opportunity to learn new skills and different ways of doing things, both for our members and Sacred Heart,” added Behil.

The highly-contagious disease continues to be a daunting task for all – hospital staff, military medical personnel, patients – with the recent wave of the Delta variant overwhelming existing health care availability. There’s currently been 75,019 total cases of the virus in Spokane County - with 3,205 added from October 26 to November 8 - along with 1,024 deaths.

A typical day for De La Torre has her working night shift on the 29-bed floor. The nursing staff gather as an entire team at 7 p.m. The charge nurse explains shift assignments, patients of concern, and any pending patients to be admitted and/or discharged.

“By 7:15 p.m., you receive report from the off-going shift, usually a minimum of three patients, and so far, a max of four. A quick review of the patient charts is next, followed by patient assessment, with vitals and medication rounds. The severity of the condition of each patient guides how the night will progress,” De La Torre said.

According to De La Torre, the majority of patients have been receptive to having the Navy Medicine team there helping provide medical care.

“About half of those I have taken care of ask more questions about the military being here,” said De La Torre. ”The majority have just been thankful someone is taking care of them in the hospital.”

Sacred Heart staff have also been accommodating and grateful for the assistance.

“All of the staff have been welcoming. We were able to have a brief orientation at our respective assignments prior to being on our own. I have worked with several different teams here and everyone bends over backwards to help each other out,” De La Torre noted.

“The staff I have worked with have been thankful for us being here,” continued De La Torre. “I have been told that they have lost a lot of staff over the past year or two to early retirement, travel opportunities in other states, and just overall burnout from dealing with the pandemic for so long.”

Extra assistance has especially been needed in Sacred Heart’s Intensive Care Unit to care for those stricken with COVID-19 as well as other patients. Two Navy corpsmen with respiratory technician specialty skills have been actively engaged in providing their expertise.

“They are involved in the care of some the most sick patients on the ward,” Behil said.

The work days are long. Breaks are minimal. The influx of COVID-19 related cases has pushed and postponed scheduled surgeries and normal appointments.

The Navy Medicine providers, nurses and hospital corpsmen are actively involved in helping them gradually return back to the norm. They are doing such as a ready medical force working as a medically ready force, both essential priorities of Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, Navy surgeon general and chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

“I cannot be more proud of our team and the hospital staff. Being on the floor and seeing how sick many of these patients are and dealing with death on a regular basis – this takes a toll on all of the caregivers and yet they come back every day. They are a very resilient group,” Behil remarked.