His first assignment with the IRR was in 2019 to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, in response to a shortage of medical personnel in the state.
On April 4, 2020, O’Connell was asked to deploy within 24 hours to New York City, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He met with other reservists at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
“And from there, within a day's time or so, we took buses up to a deserted Times Square,” he said.
O’Connell was familiar with New York City, because he did his internship in internal medicine at New York Medical College.
“It [did] not even feel like New York,” he said. “It totally changed my perception of the city. It was a ghost town when we arrived, and entirely deserted.”
O’Connell assumed he would serve at the Javits Convention Center, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients. But active duty military were helping to run that.
“The greatest need turned out to be in the surrounding community hospitals, and the various boroughs of New York City, which are extremely dense in population, and — especially in areas where we were assigned— are disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis for a number of reasons,” he said.
O’Connell was assigned to serve at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, which he said was the second-most hit hospital in the city at the time. His work was limited to the ninth floor, which was a medical surgical unit that had been converted into a medical ICU.
He said the floor had about 30 rooms that held about 60 patients. He remembers the hospital drilled holes into the walls for wires to pass through from patients in the rooms to machines in the hallway.
“That's how sort of desperate the situation was,” O’Connell said. “Temporary ventilators had to be put into the rooms, and they had to put IV lines— because there was no space in the rooms themselves, they're not built to be a medical ICU — in the hallway outside.”
O’Connell is a neurologist, but his training included a year of internal medicine and three years of inpatient neurology. Still, he wasn’t certain how his skill set would translate to the needs of the patients before him.
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“I did not know what to expect initially, but I was assigned to a floor team along with residents,” he said. “And, believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be a resident again. For anyone who knows anything about medicine, they can understand why. It was certainly a humbling experience.”
“The nurses and the respiratory therapists, in my opinion, did the bulk of the work, because the care [was] largely supportive.”
He said the majority of his time was spent doing essentially grunt medical work, though he did perform the occasional neurology exam. Between four and six days a week, O’Connell would check on patients, and help treat any conditions they suffered in addition to COVID-19. Many of his initial patients were older, and had medical conditions that were frequently exacerbated by the coronavirus.
O’Connell spent two months at Lincoln Hospital in New York City, and he estimates several dozen of his patients died from COVID-19 related respiratory compromise, or from worsening comorbidities in the setting of COVID-19 infection, during that time. By the end of his deployment, the number of COVID-19 patients on his floor had dropped substantially, allowing for a smooth transition of military reservists out of the hospital.
It has been more than a year since O’Connell’s deployment for the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is still processing the experience.
“My analogy is the 100 year flood,” he said. “It's something that you don't expect at all, but that you try to have some level of preparation for.”