In July 2020, Leyton launched a global sailing campaign to thank individuals who helped support the fight against COVID-19. We asked our employees to nominate their friends, family, & others who have inspired them with their actions during the pandemic. We collected over 200 names and honored these everyday heroes by putting their names on the sail.
One of these individuals who fought the pandemic on the frontlines is Karen Della-Giustina MD. She is a Colonel (COL) in the US Army Reserves and Deputy Commander of Clinical Services (senior physician) of her medical task force in New York. Karen’s mission was to prepare soldiers to support NYC with COVID-19 response at the height of the pandemic. Her task force was the first one to allocate nurses, doctors, pharmacists, respiratory therapists to help the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. We asked Karen about her experience.
How was the situation in New York when your task force was activated?
Karen: It was an acute crisis - a prolonged Mass Casualty situation with a large number of people who were ill and infected who required significant medical care. We had to work really fast, and my job was to put the doctors, PA’s, nurses, and other medical personnel into their appropriate places to help out. When we first went into Queens Hospital Center, we had 200 patients in the Emergency Department, with another 60 to 80 patients waiting for inpatient beds. The ER only holds 60 patients. It was a very acute situation.
There are over 2 million people who live in Queens. There are multi-generational families who had no or little warning of COVID-19 coming, and nobody was immune. It was the perfect storm for an overwhelming healthcare crisis. As a new, highly contagious respiratory infection, COVID-19 infected a large portion of the population. An enormous number of people were sick, including hospital staff such as janitors, nurses, doctors and support staff. The ICU in Queens Hospital Center usually has 16 beds, but there were hundreds of Intensive Care patients. This was an overwhelming situation that required immediate support. In addition, the quality of healthcare needed to be continuously maintained.
My soldiers were very brave. They went in and performed their mission well, knowing the enormity of the situation. The numbers of symptomatically ill patients were staggering. COVID-19 was burning through Queens and NYC. I let them know the dangerous situation and they all faced it without reservation. They exceeded my high expectations and I am so proud of them.
COL Karen Della-Giustina in front of the Javits Center at the beginning of the mission.
How many days and hours were you on the job?
Karen: As a leader and physician in the middle of a pandemic and activated for a mission, I needed to be constantly available and working. To this end, in a Command position, I was working 7 days a week, with long hours to make sure that the mission would be successful and that my soldiers were cared for. I was mobilized from the end of March through June. Towards the end of the mission, when the acuity lessened, I definitely had more downtime. The people in the Queens Hospital Center were extremely kind and grateful for our help. It was an honor to help them and support an urgent need in the United States - the long hours did not matter to me. Yes, when you are a soldier on Active Duty, you’re available 24/7.
“When you’re a soldier, you’re available 24/7 for active duty.”
Prior to entering the Emergency Department in Queens Hospital Center. Everyone had to be in Full PPE before entering the space.
What was the most challenging part of your mission?
Karen: There were many challenges, but the most challenging part was the huge wave of patients. I had to make sure that the right people were in the appropriate places and the ever-changing situation was being communicated through the command. It was also vital for me to make sure that we had enough PPE for the soldiers, because the hospitals often ran low on PPE and we had to find other sources to get the supplies.
“While all of this was daunting, my husband, Dave, was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt safer compared to that, because no one is shooting at me.”
Was it difficult to be away from your family during this time?
Karen: As a parent during the COVID-19 pandemic, I went through the same disappointments of missing celebrating the in-person accomplishments of my children that other parents in the country went through. My daughter, Katey, graduated early from the Uniformed Services Medical School the week that my unit was preparing for the NYC mission at Fort Devens, MA. It was hard for as a mother to watch my daughter graduate on a computer. My son also graduated from UConn with his Master’s in Public Policy when I was serving in the Queens hospital. As a military family, missing milestones has happened to us before. However, I was definitely in the same boat as many, many other parents in the country. My family was healthy - for that, I was really grateful.
“We are a family of service.”
Karen’s family, Last to right : Dana, Stevie, Karen, Katey, son in law 2LT Kyler Osborne, husband COL (retired) Dave, Marissa.
What was your biggest accomplishment during the mission?
Karen: I know for sure that my Task Force did an exceptional job taking care of patients and supporting the healthcare system in NYC. It was a team effort, and leading a successful team was a privilege. We have to realize that in healthcare, even if you do everything right, there may be bad outcomes and human suffering. With an ongoing pandemic and mass casualty situation, as healthcare professionals, we tried to do as much as we could to save patients. Unfortunately, we did have to witness human suffering, even while working as hard as we could. We recognized this as a potential cause of moral injury and PTSD.
To keep the soldiers in the fight, we started a program of Soldier Wellness Checks in my taskforce, which was also adopted by other units. We started to have small groups of soldiers, who initially met every week in NYC, now on zoom, to share their experiences. This group is a safe place to share their experience with peers who went through the same experiences, and if they need a higher level of mental health care, we are able to refer them.
I also started the twice weekly Continuing Medical Education Courses for COVID-19 for all military providers and nurses in NYC through NYC Health and Hospital system. I am really proud of that. This brought lectures from SM experts in person and through Webex to soldiers and other healthcare providers caring for patients at the Javits Center and the outlying hospitals in the region. This lecture series helped with morale and also in keeping everyone up to date of the latest information on COVID-19- which was forever rapidly changing.
US Military staff and Queens Hospital staff at Queens Hospital, NYC.
How did you feel about being nominated for Leyton's "Thank You" sailing campaign?
Karen: I was very surprised and thought it was a huge honor! I was very emotional about it. My husband and kids also thought it was really great. Thank-you so much!
“It was a tough fight, but it's nice to be home.”
Leyton thanks you for your service!