Members of the U.S. Navy, including physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists, pose for a photo as they arrived to support the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City on March 2. Their deployment ended Wednesday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Navy members who spent much of March helping at the University of Utah Hospital walked through the halls to leave the hospital on Wednesday, as hospital employees lined the halls to cheer them on and thank them for their service.
The Department of Defense deployed a group of 23 members of the Navy to the hospital to help with a backlog of surgeries that got delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than a month after they arrived on March 2, the hospital has been able to clear about a quarter of the 500 delayed surgeries.
Sebastien Fontanges, a hospital corpsman 2nd class with the U.S. Navy who helped in the emergency department, said that this was his third deployment to bolster hospital COVID-19 responses, following previous deployments in Alabama and New Mexico.
“The staff here has been wonderful. It’s been a privilege and honor to serve the Salt Lake City community as a respiratory therapist. And it was great to lend my hand and my expertise for the COVID patients here in this hospital,” Fontanges said.
He said he learned from staff at the U. Hospital and will be able to use that knowledge at his home in San Diego as he treats military patients.
“I think Utah as a whole — particularly this hospital — they did a great job in disseminating vaccinations, maintaining policies in terms of social distancing and also masking so that when we got here we were dealing with, still COVID patients, but not the same severity as the other hospitals because they did what it took to bring down those numbers,” Fontanges said.
Before the U.S. Navy came to help, the omicron surge had been hard on the hospital, said U. Health CEO Dr. Michael Good. It had beds without patients, but didn’t have enough people to staff the beds or complete all of the scheduled procedures.
“On behalf of all of us here at University of Utah Health, we are here to express sincere gratitude and thanks to our colleagues from the U.S. Navy medical team that has been deployed here to assist us at University Hospital,” Good said Wednesday.
He said hospital employees need to be able to take care of themselves before they are able to care for patients and the community, and the aid from the U.S. Navy allowed them to do that.
“We hope we never find ourselves in this situation again, but if we ever do, we will welcome the opportunity to join forces once again, with just wonderful colleagues from the Department of Defense, along with our state leaders who helped to coordinate and restore our operations,” Good added.
Kencee Graves, chief medical officer for inpatient health at the U. Hospital, said the Navy deployment was like a bridge allowing the hospital to recover from the COVID-19 omicron surge and move forward.
Before the Navy arrived, she said physicians had been delaying surgical procedures daily, sometimes the same surgery multiple times, to allow them to take care of the patients who were the sickest. She said many procedures can’t happen unless there is a bed and staff ready for the patient after the surgery. The hospital also consistently had people waiting in the emergency department for enough space to be admitted to the hospital, even prior to receiving treatment.
Graves said the hospital applied for national support because of the challenging position it was in.
Now, after the help from the U.S. Navy, she said there is almost no wait time to be admitted into the hospital, and the backlog of surgeries is significantly smaller. Shortly after the U.S. Navy arrived, Graves said she was able to focus on caring for her patients instead of trying to balance that with other additional responsibilities.
“From the day they arrived, they were professional, accommodating and mission-driven, to help us deliver the best care to the Intermountain West,” Graves said.
For the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Graves said U. Health has not needed to call employees in during their time off. Being able to count on time off and actually plan to do something with their families has been a big help to the staff, she said.
The group of U.S. Navy members included 14 nurses, two respiratory therapists, four doctors and three administrators, who integrated with the hospital staff, adding their own expertise and experience with COVID-19.
After training, the naval group had about three full weeks to help in the hospital, and Graves said the additional staff helped make a tremendous impact. She said they meshed quickly and worked hard.
Now, when Graves and other surgeons look at surgeries scheduled for any given day, they don’t need to coordinate and determine which need to be rescheduled.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Graves has learned a lot about preparedness. She said she feels more prepared now to manage a pandemic, and that the hospital is ready to alter procedures again if there is another surge of COVID-19, but she feels hopeful.
“The most reassuring thing is actually knowing that we’ve done it before, and that we have tremendous teams and really dedicated professionals that will do what we need to, to serve our patients,” Graves said.
Lt. Greta Stevens, who was deployed as a critical care nurse at the hospital, said she had a good experience and that the month of 12-hour shifts at the hospital actually flew by.
“The patient population here is incredibly kind. I never met one ungrateful patient, everyone was really just happy to be taken care of, really grateful for the care that they get here,” she said.
Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.