Air Force Reserve epidemiologist volunteers for COVID-19 fight
By 2nd Lt. Daniel Phelps, 349th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 09, 2020
NEW YORK (AFNS) --
With more than 160,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths from COVID-19, New York has been one of the hardest hit cities in the world.
Due to the overwhelming numbers of coronavirus patients, the Air Force Reserve called on its Airmen to help ensure hot spots around the country have the support they need. Dr. (Maj.) Sanjiv Baxi, 349th Medical Group doctor, jumped at the opportunity to help.
Baxi always felt a desire to give back to his country. He was born in California to parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from India in order to provide their family a better life and opportunities.
“My dad had to borrow money to come here, and they built a life in the U.S.,” Baxi said. “I’ve been so grateful for the life we’ve been able to have and to build because of all the opportunities and freedoms of this country.”
Now, Baxi, an infectious disease doctor and adjunct professor in epidemiology at University of California San Francisco, as well as an internal medicine doctor in the Air Force Reserve, is giving back by helping with the COVID-19 fight in New York City as part of the U. S. Northern Command Defense Department response to support FEMA.
“I had been working on COVID-19 for a few months before it hit,” Baxi said. “Because of my background and being a medical provider for the 349th MDS, I felt I had something to bring to the fight.”
It was very apparent that New York City was struggling to identify a set of providers for the imminent surge, Baxi said. Headquarters was looking for a group of physicians who could volunteer at a moment’s notice.
“I quickly put my name down,” he said.
Baxi was shocked when he arrived.
One can read about how bad it is and see the numbers, but witnessing the amount of suffering is a different experience, he said.
“It’s unbelievably bad,” Baxi explained. “The entire hospital I am at has been converted into an (intensive care unit) that is operating at 25% to 30% over capacity. It’s completely full, plus another quarter. And almost all of them have COVID-19. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen.”
They converted a lot of the non-clinical areas into beds and spaces for patients, he described. Places that used to be holding spaces are now medical wards.
“They’ve been quite creative with converting every square inch to support the care of so many very sick people,” he said.
Baxi has been working hard to help out as much as he can. On top of caring for about 20 to 30 patients as the attending physician for his team, he’s also been helping out with his expertise in infectious disease.
“I’ve been working about every day to bring as much value as I can to help provide excess capacity,” Baxi said. “Some days I work later, some days I come in earlier. I take time off when I can. A lot of people are exhausted.”
The military training that him and the other Reserve Airmen have received helped them quickly integrate in with medical teams in New York.
“We are used to going into any environment and any setting and falling back on our core skill sets,” he said. “Our core fundamentals are still applicable, and are coming across and put on display on a daily basis. We are here to deliver medical care.”
While a lot of the patients are very sick and some don’t make it, the hospital works to ensure hope for recovery, Baxi said.
One of the greatest things I’ve seen is when someone who is very sick and has to be put on a ventilator, is able to breathe on their own again, Baxi said. Many times, when we have to go that route, the patient doesn’t make it.
But, whenever a tube is removed because the patient can breathe again, the hospital will play the sound of applause over the loudspeaker for the whole hospital to hear, he continued.
“It really gives people a sense of hope,” he said. “It lets them know that good things are happening. Those are the moments we hold on to.”
Baxi and other military members may be stateside, but they deployed to the frontlines of a unique fight.
Many families are making a lot of sacrifices to be here for our country, Baxi emphasized. It’s different than normal. In past times, it was simple enough to go to our neighbor and knock on their door. It’s not easy like that today.
“I have two little kids and my wife can’t ask for help,” Baxi said. “This is harder on military families than it’s ever been.”
He stressed the importance of ensuring people are ok, whether it’s by making a phone call, grabbing stuff for people or dropping things off.
“These are incredibly lonely times,” he said. “We have to make sure people are ok and taken care of.”
Even with the stress, Baxi said that being able to deliver this care to people during these times has been incredibly rewarding. He is happy to be giving back to his country.