How I Cared for Patients on the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Crisis

It was exhausting, it was challenging, it brought us together, it was (it is) COVID-19

By Page Etzler, RN, PhD, MBA, MS, FACHE

It was about to be 3:00 AM on an early March morning at Dobbins Air Force Base just outside of Atlanta, GA.  Our team was waiting on the tarmac in full protective gear, to meet the passengers that were flown in from California after being quarantined on their cruise ship for days.  This was the beginning of one of the first mandated quarantines that were handed down due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The passengers were exhausted, some were crying, some were in poor health and cold.  It was our job to help them through this unprecedented situation in our country, our job to prove to them we were there to help them, to gain their trust and to help them adjust to their new normal.

On the first day, many people were upset as communication was limited, meals were arriving late, and more passengers were arriving.

Despite our goal to get all 300 meals delivered in an hour, it was taking more than two and a half hours. Our own teams of nurses, paramedics, morticians, law-enforcement and physicians worked 21 hours straight.  We knew we had to do something to help ease the fears of our new patients and streamline our operations.


We decided to first focus on trust and honesty with our patients.

Whenever a meal was delivered, we made sure to give them update on future meals, how to obtain medication and necessities and how to escalate concerns.  We communicated using whiteboards within every compound and by distributing papers with lists of events and expected mealtimes every day.  When we were not caring for patients or providing meals, we walked along the fence that separated the non-contaminated distribution area from the passenger lodging area so that everyone could see our faces and ask us questions.  We were able to talk to them about their daily lives, their families and their jobs, and we were able to share the same.  This went a long way in building trust and rapport with our patients.


In order to ensure our team was on the same page, improve our efficiency, and understand any emerging issues, we held twice daily huddles.  We were able to identify barriers that were affecting our operations and make actionable plans to address those barriers.  One of the specific areas of focus was meal time deliveries, which we were able to decrease from two and a half hours to thirty minutes in the first five days.

Our team was truly beginning to trust each other as well.  While there were some periods of frustration, just like most teams experience, we worked together, examined our process and created a system that everyone understood and could follow consistently with every treatment, distribution and assessment.

As the trust was established and our operations began to run smoothly, passengers' fears began to subside, and they began to trust that we were doing everything we could to make this experience as positive as it could be.  These passengers who arrived with anger and uncertainty, who were yelling at us and crying, now valued our team.  It’s important to remember that it's not the attitude when a patient enters a facility that is critical, it is the impression they have when they leave.

I’ve learned a lot as a result of my time spent on this team at Dobbins Air Force Base.  I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions and extreme exhaustion, but I would not change one minute of it.  I was able to contribute not only my clinical skills, empathy and compassion as well. Most importantly, I was able to do what I love most, help patients!