Patients lay intubated in hospital hallways, their respirator tubes and monitors running through holes punched into walls. Continuous lines of ambulances dropped off the sick and dying and returned with even more. Three refrigerated 18-wheelers sat parked outside, serving as makeshift morgues.
That was the scene that greeted UCF College of Medicine faculty physician Jeff LaRochelle on his first day serving at a New York hospital at the then-epicenter of America’s COVID-19 pandemic. A colonel in the Air Force Reserves and an internal medicine specialist, LaRochelle was called up to active duty during the first days of the pandemic and recently returned to UCF from his deployment.
As assistant dean of medical education, LaRochelle had just finished putting the medical school’s curriculum totally online because of COVID-19 when he received orders to report to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. “I received the call on Friday evening for deployment that Sunday morning,” he says. “So, I pretty much had less than 48 hours to prepare.”
At the height of the outbreak, New York was losing 600 people a day to COVID-19.
The moment he landed in New Jersey, the Air Force sent him to the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan, which had become a makeshift hospital for New York’s thousands of COVID-19 patients. From there, he was assigned to Queens Hospital Center, where he led a ward team caring for about 30 patients suffering from the virus. New York and New Jersey were the first areas hit hardest by the pandemic that surfaced in the U.S. in January. At the height of the outbreak, New York was losing 600 people a day to COVID-19.
“One of the things the military trains you is to be put in situations where there is a tremendous amount of chaos, and for you to walk in and create a sense of organization and structure out of the chaos, so that you can actually get things done,” he says. “And that’s exactly we walked into — absolute chaos.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the hospital was overwhelmed. It had lost 50 percent of its providers because so many nurses and doctors had contracted COVID-19. LaRochelle had two senior residents and two interns to help him provide care.
“Patients were everywhere. The ICU was full. The wards were full,” he says. “The emergency room was just unbelievable. In a bay where you’d normally have one patient, there were three. And where you would normally have curtains separating the bays, there were none. It was just open. And everyone was mixed in together. So, you would have a patient who was intubated next to a patient who was just being evaluated.”
He said the hardest part of providing care was seeing the emotional impact on families who had to stay isolated from their sick loved ones to avoid getting infected. He watched patients dropped off at the emergency ward who would never speak to or see their family members again before they died. Patients perished alone, even though some had sick relatives in the same hospital.
“We would have entire families being admitted, and only one or two would make it home,” he says. “And having to inform relatives that their mom might make it home, but their dad might not, was very common. You couldn’t really hug anybody or offer comfort. That was the biggest impact I could see for myself, and for others around me.”
With additional resources — military reservists and other medical volunteers — the hospital was able to stabilize its processes after about two weeks, and about six weeks later New York’s number of COVID-19 patients began to decline. LaRochelle had been told his deployment could last six months but returned home in two.
He had to test negative for COVID-19 before being allowed to leave New York City. He then had the option of completing a 14-day quarantine at home, or on a military base and then had to have a second test at the end of his quarantine period. All his tests were negative.
“I don’t think I really ever had any fear regarding my personal safety with respect to the virus,” he said. “We had trust in the procedures we put in place regarding protective equipment, and went forward with the mission at hand. And based on what I heard, only two reservists contracted the disease during our deployment.”
As he returns to teaching, LaRochelle said COVID-19 has reminded him of lessons he wants to share with medical students.
“This experience really underscored what I’ve always felt,” he says, “that healthcare providers run towards the fire. We have to put ourselves in that dangerous spot sometimes to do the right thing for our patients and for our society.
“Altruism is a word we toss around a lot in medicine, but this is altruism in action. It’s the core of what we do as physicians and it’s certainly one of the core values that we have in the Air Force — service before self. And that’s the lesson I would like to share with our medical students – altruism in action. It’s a calling to serve in this profession.”
He said his experience also gives him perspective on Florida’s efforts to fight the virus. “I think Florida is now experiencing the tail end of our peak in cases. We need to keep doing the simple things — wear a mask in public and wash our hands. The biggest lessons we can take from New York we already are taking — get tested, start treatment early and don’t send COVID-19 positive patients back to nursing homes.
“Everyone needs to play their part — wear a mask in public and wash your hands.”
Richard Peppler, vice dean and associate dean for faculty and academic affairs, commended LaRochelle for answering the call to serve.
“Dr. LaRochelle has a long and distinguished career with the military and puts service first,” says Peppler, an Army reservist who was stationed in hospitals during Vietnam and Desert Storm. “He put himself in harm’s way to provide medical care for patients in one of the areas affected most by the pandemic. We are grateful he has returned safely and has been able to draw on that experience to help the college to resume aspects of the educational program in a safe environment.”
LaRochelle also serves as a staff physician and resident preceptor at the Orlando VA Medical Center. Before joining UCF, he held several positions at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, where he also received his M.D.