By - August 18, 2021
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a recurring series of pathologists and laboratory professionals’ reflections and stories about work and life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being in the military more than 14 years I’ve come to realize that there are no shortage of surprises or last-minute life changes. Combine this with a global pandemic that is responsible for millions of deaths and illnesses, and things have been quite challenging. In the summer of 2020 I was preparing to change duty stations from Joint Base Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, to Okinawa, Japan. In Texas I was the lead Navy Chemistry instructor for the military’s Laboratory Technician program, and I was going to transfer to a more operational platform, taking on the role of a field Laboratory Scientist/Technician.
Shorty, after I began to prepare for my move I received a call from my superiors stating due to COVID-19 and various unknowns that instead of going to Japan, I would be going to Oceanside, California. After arriving in California during the winter of 2020 it was astounding to see how operations were halted. There was literally nothing major happening mainly due to outbreaks and various safety mandates. However, my skills were required now more than ever. So, I was sent to the major laboratory on the Camp Pendleton base and proceeded to assist in the testing of COVID-19 samples.
COVID-19 had ravaged the regular staff at the laboratory, leaving us to deal with a more than usual shortage of staff. There were days of us arriving at 6am, testing more than 500 samples, getting home at 10:00pm and getting concerned looks from our loved ones.
In early 2021 President Biden announced that the military would be assisting FEMA efforts to vaccinate various parts of the country to help combat this deadly virus. As a result of this announcement some of my colleagues had only a couple of days’ notice to get their things ready and get ready to go Dallas, Texas, where our first team was assigned to go.
From that moment on the operational tempo significantly spiked!
Vaccination teams were getting prepped and ready all around the country; this was our main focus being in the medical sector of the U.S. Navy. Being a laboratory professional in the civilian world I would typically just operate in the day-to-day functions in a regular lab, but as a Hospital Corpsman (Navy Medic) with the laboratory specialty I am also expected to perform the basic medical tasks of which I was initially trained for by the Navy. I didn’t know if I would use these skills again but the time had come when vaccines had to be given and this had to be a collective team effort. Sure, this was a stressful time for me, having to leave my family behind, but this is the life of a service member and what we all have signed up for. In a way it gave us a sense of heightened purpose knowing that we were actively part of the solution of getting back to some sort of normalcy.
My team was slotted to go to Oregon, but I had an unforeseen family issue I had to deal with and couldn’t go with the team. Unsurprisingly, one of fellow service brothers immediately volunteered to take my spot and I was a part of the Remaining Behind Element. My command deployed about 90% of its members to President Biden’s vaccination teams and the rest of us supported the mission by providing the deployed members with whatever logistic or administrative support they needed. I continued to help in the local lab with more COVID-19 testing along with preparing for their upcoming CAP inspection. Our vaccinations teams went to various parts in Texas, Louisiana, and Oregon for about two to three months, and all together they vaccinated around 250,000 people in that span.
Our teams are back, the workload in lab has significantly decreased, and masks mandates are being relaxed, though with the Delta variant on the rise, that may change. There is some real optimism about getting back to normalcy and I’m happy I have played a role in that.
Medical Laboratory Scientist