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'It’s not over:' MacDill reservist who spent months on COVID-19 front lines in NYC returns home with warning

Doctors with the U.S. Air Force Reserves from MacDill joined thousands of other military members who were deployed to the nation’s coronavirus epicenter.

TAMPA, Fla. — Col. Jennifer Robyn Ratcliff wasn’t sure what to expect when she touched down in New York City the first week of April.

Would it be as bad as they were saying?

It was worse.

“We were there for the sickest people – when the hospital was the fullest,” she said. “We got there just in time, I’ll be honest with you, I really do truly believe that being there saved some lives.”

Ratcliff, an orthopedic surgeon at the Orlando VA and commander of the 927th Aerospace Medical Squadron out of MacDill, had never lead a mission where medical was the mission.

“We’re normally the support element,” Ratcliff said over Zoom from her room on MacDill Air Force Base. “This was the first time medical was the primary mission and everyone else was supporting us.”

Just as the mammoth U.S.N.S. Comfort was arriving and the city’s convention center was being converted into a field hospital for COVID-19 patients, Ratcliff and her colleagues joined healthcare workers at a half dozen of the city’s most inundated hospitals.

Ratcliff says she had never seen so many sick people in one spot.

“I can tell you, it was bad,” Ratcliff said. “The emergency room was filled with patients who really needed to be admitted but there were no beds for them.”

Ratcliff’s colleague, Lt. Col. Raja Talati, a reserve citizen Airmen and flight doctor for the 927th Air Refueling Wing, described the situation as “organized disruption” when he spoke with 10 Tampa Bay’s Ryan Bass in mid-April.

“Nobody is really prepared for this,” Talati said via video call from his Times Square hotel room following a grueling 14-hour shift at a Bronx hospital. “When somebody comes in from a heart attack, we’ve got a protocol, when somebody comes in with COVID-19, there really is no recipe to follow.”

Given the high-stress environment, the team made sure to take time to celebrate the small victories, too, like when patients who had been on ventilators were finally taken off and able to breathe on their own again.

"I just watched one of our Air Force Reserve respiratory therapists extubate a patient who's been here for a week," Ratcliff says during one her video diaries she recorded on her phone.

"You can tell that peoples' spirits are lifted and it's just nice to see the team have some hope."

RELATED: Florida lieutenant deployed to NYC to fight COVID-19 describes his experience

Ratcliff and her fellow reservists returned to Florida two weeks ago just as new COVID-19 cases started to increase locally. While she, like so many others, is eager to get back to “normal” life, she can’t forget what she saw first hand in New York.

“Most people haven’t seen the death that happens with this,” she said, expressing she’s worried most about people like her getting people like her father—who has a history of cancer—sick.

“This is a real disease, it makes people really sick, and most people it doesn’t but what is ‘most,’ I mean that’s still a percentage of people who will die too early.”

Ratcliff says she’s ready to answer the call again, if needed, and she’s grateful to the healthcare workers in New York who welcomed the help.

But for now, she says she’s doing what she can to convince people to wear a mask and to continue to practice social distancing.

“It's not over... I understand that it’s difficult, but we have to protect people who can’t protect themselves,” she said. “Because I saw those people die in New York City and I don’t want that to happen to family and friends in Florida.”

During roughly six weeks of deployment, Reserve Citizen Airmen saw more than 37,000 patients, according to Air Force Reserve Command.

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