Fred Wellman, a West Point graduate and retired public affairs officer, was at home in Richmond, Virginia when he got a call from his friend Kate Kemplin, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Nursing in Ontario, Canada, who was driving to New York.
"She said, 'we're building a hospital and we need your network in New York City,'" Wellman, who holds a masters in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School, told We Are The Mighty.
Kemplin was referencing what would become the Ryan F. Larkin NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University's Baker Field, a temporary hospital created to care for COVID-19 patients.
"She needed someone to handle the administrative aspects -- things like admin work, bed tracking systems, logistics, not a hospital person, but someone intimately familiar with processes," Wellman explained. "I was telling my girlfriend about all of this later on and she looked right at me and said, 'You know that's you, right?'"
Wellman, the founder and CEO of public relations and research firm ScoutComms, talked to his senior staff and family and called Kemplin back.
"It sounds like you need me," he told her.
Wellman pauses for a selfie in what would become The Ryan F. Larkin NewYork-Presbyterian Field Hospital at Columbia University's Baker Field.
Courtesy of Fred Wellman
Wellman drove to New York City, where he has been working for a week in his new role as chief of staff at the field hospital, where the staff is composed entirely of former military.
"We put the SOS out to the Special Forces community for medics, and said we need you in New York within a day or two," Wellman said. "We were able to bring in Special Forces medics as healthcare providers under doctor supervision. It's never been done in a stateside setting, to use former medics as providers. They're putting on PPE and taking care of patients. That's what's so revolutionary about this. These are former special operations community medics and healthcare workers who have come together on a week's notice. It's never been done. Using medics this way is unheard of."
On Tuesday, April 14, 2020, the Ryan F. Larkin NewYork-Presbyterian Field Hospital opened.
Melissa Givens, a retired Army colonel, serves as the hospital's medical director with over 20 years of experience in emergency and special operations medicine and disaster operation.
"We're able to let veterans do what they love to do and that's run at the sound of gunfire, and the gunfire is coronavirus. Here we come and we're here to help," Givens, who left her work as a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, D.C. area to aid in NYC, said in an interview with Spectrum News NY1.
The temporary hospital, named after Navy SEAL medic Ryan Larkin who died in April 2017, has the capacity to treat 216 COVID-19 patients, as well as staff a 47-bed emergency department outpost.
"Many beds are being taken up at local hospitals by people who are recovering and we need those beds for sicker people," Wellman said. "Hospitals are using their waiting rooms, cafeterias, as bed space. We have treated a couple dozen patients [here], and that's growing quickly. Our hope is to get our system working really well and to get sicker patients into the proper hospitals where they belong."
Despite the enormous physical and mental strain of the work being done, Wellman admits that the military's ingrained sense of camaraderie has helped.
"We all understand the gravity of what we are doing and why we are here," he said. "[But] seeing the way all these veterans, from different branches of service, with different experiences, and completely different ranks, just fell right into a unit from day one."
Speaking through a mask as the interview ended and Wellman headed back inside the bubble, he likened his experience to his former life as an executive military officer.
"I went to Iraq three times and Desert Storm before that. That first deployment, you didn't know what to expect; it's planned, you know what you're going to do, but once you cross that border, all bets are off. Yeah we have systems and processes, but this virus gets to vote, too."