Everyone is aware of the enormity of the COVID-19 epidemic—especially in New York. To help overcrowded hospitals with overworked medical staffs, the U.S. Navy sent its ship USNS Comfort to help relieve some of the pressure on hospitals. Christopher Schmied, a 2019 Brookline College nursing graduate and Ensign, Nurse Corps in the U.S. Navy, is working on board, fighting the kind of battle he never would have expected: against a silent viral killer.
“Initially, the USNS Comfort was sent to New York to relieve pressure on hospitals by treating people with ailments other than COVID-19, ENS Schmied says. However, on April 6, the USNS Comfort began accepting trauma, emergency and urgent-care patients without regard to their COVID status.” The Comfort works with the Javits New York Medical Station as an integrated system within New York City’s medical system. Even though the initial mission was altered, the ship and crew were stocked with adequate supplies and trained to treat COVID-19 patients, paying careful consideration to the safety and security of patients as well as care providers.
Military personnel have been told they’ll stay in New York as long as local officials think they can help. The ship’s crew includes about 1,200 people: doctors, medical specialists, civilian mariners and 140 nurses. “I see our biggest challenge to be taking on the enormous patient population that New York currently possesses,” ENS Schmied says. As of 10a.m. on April 14, nearly 200,000 cases have been reported in the state—most of them in the environs of New York City.
Although ENS Schmied doesn’t know how many patients the Comfort will treat—or how severe their cases will be—the ship is fully staffed, supplied and functional with operating rooms, X-ray machines, a CAT scan unit, a pharmacy and two oxygen-producing plants. “The USNS Comfort also maintains up to 5,000 units of blood and now, after beginning to admit COVID-positive patients, has a maximum capacity of 500 beds,” he says. “This allows us to separate our COVID-positive from our COVID-negative patients. Of the 500, 80 are ICU beds with the capability to surge to 100 if necessary.”
Before he was assigned to the USNS Comfort, ENS Schmied was working at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth’s Intensive Care Unit/Step Down Unit. His new assignment differs. “This assignment is Americans helping Americans,” he says. “The Navy, in a time of crisis, stands ready to answer the call to support civil authorities and the American people.”
ENS Schmied is dedicated to his mission on board the Comfort, but that doesn’t mean he’s not afraid. “Being deployed and serving on this mission means being away from those closest to me,” he says. “At times, due to my work schedule, I am unable to tell them I am safe and well. I fear that they may be worried about me more often than I am available to absolve them of their fears and anxieties.” He is also concerned that he will be unable to be with his wife to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
All of the military personnel aboard the USNS Comfort take safety precautions recommended by the CDC and the Department of Defense: washing their hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based gel, avoiding close contact with others when it isn’t necessary, wearing a mask or face cover when around others, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning and disinfecting all items that routinely come in contact with people, and always wearing proper PPE.
Stricter safety precautions apply to anyone in contact with COVID-positive patients. “Crewmembers who were in contact with the COVID-19 positive individuals will remain isolated from patients who do not have COVID-19, have their temperature taken daily, be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and continue to wear proper PPE,” says ENS Schmied.
As a final precaution, the clinical staff—medical, nursing and staff corps with significant patient contact—aboard the ship moved into a local hotel. That measure was implemented to reduce the number of crew members present in the common areas of the ship, such as the berthing and mess decks. “It makes it easier for us to demonstrate social distancing as directed by the CDC and DoD,” ENS Schmied says.
The path to becoming a nurse took ENS Schmied nearly eight years. Like many in his family, he joined the military after high school. “As a hospital corpsman, I had the opportunity to work with many amazing and motivational nurses,” he says. “Their endless compassion towards their patients and their yearning for medicine inspired me to work hard and join their ranks. I am honored to be of service to my country as a member of the nursing community.” It wasn’t an easy road, and it wasn’t even always enjoyable. “I had to remember and be reminded often to evaluate my sense of happiness and purpose at every step along the way.”
He’s grateful that Brookline College gave him the functional experience and foundation in nursing that he uses every day. Topics such as the fundamentals of PPE and infection control were covered in lab courses and clinical settings. Now, however, they serve as the keystone of both CDC and DoD recommendations toward preventing the exposure and contraction of COVID-19. “These topics that were once necessary for academic success and passing a college course are now being implemented in real-life patient care settings,” he says.
For those considering a nursing career, ENS Schmied has some advice. “Do not stray from your chosen path, do not feed into your worries, surround yourself with people who encourage and support you, distance and remove those who do not, and always remember that nothing worth having comes easy.”
“Being a nurse has provided me many moments of satisfaction and purpose, while also providing many moments of frustration and challenge,” ENS Schmied says. “I often find the strength and reassurance I need to do my job from my wife and best friend, Sara. I also take an immense amount of pride and feel relieved to be working with so many fantastic nurses, corpsmen, and doctors. Their competence, support and energy motivate me and aid me throughout this mission.”
Ensign Christopher Schmied urges everyone to abide by local and national recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, mask etiquette and hygiene. “Reach out to friends, family, and essential personnel whom you cannot socialize with and check in on them,” he says. “We may be fighting this battle on many fronts, but we are not alone; it helps to be reminded of that.”
Contact Brookline College for information on how you can enroll in in-demand nursing programs. Start courses online now, and finish your lab and clinical courses later.