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NC oncology nurse, Navy reservist helps NY hospitals hit by the coronavirus

By JOSH SHAFFER | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: April 25, 2020

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RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — For her regular job, Jenna Wenzel works as an oncology nurse at the UNC Rex Cancer Center, prepping patients for chemotherapy.

On alternate weeks, she works from home and talks to patients on the phone or through video chats – a strategy for keeping half the nursing staff healthy in case the other half gets sick.

But for Wenzel, 33, the whirlwind has stirred up on her other job, which now ranks among the most important work in her life. In her off hours, she works as a U.S. Navy reservist in Raleigh, shipping health care workers to COVID-19 hotspots.

Her clinic, connected to Camp Lejeune, has now sent reservists to both the sprawling field hospital converted from Javits Center convention hall in New York and to the USNS Comfort, the Navy's floating hospital ship that docked in Manhattan late last month.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, her unit of 70 reservists might mobilize one to four people at a time. Now, Wenzel said, that number totals 17 – an unheard-of figure.

Once the pandemic hit, she started getting calls at 1 a.m. telling her to put her people on standby, explaining they would have to be packed and on a plane in 24 hours. She had reservists leave Raleigh on a Sunday and report straight to Manhattan hospitals by Tuesday.

"I've never been through something like this in my reserve career," said Wenzel, who has a master's degree in oncology from UNC-Chapel Hill. "I asked for volunteers and I had more than half of my unit say yes."

Wenzel has seen stressful times before. As a reservist, she spent a year in Afghanistan when troop levels still topped 40,000, working in a trauma hospital on the flight line in Kandahar.

"I look at the flag differently now," she said. "I feel more connected to it."

But her experience staffing virus-stricken hospital has boosted her faith that the healthcare system will not be stricken by any shortages.

"It's really highlighted the ability of our reserve force to provide medical care here if it's ever needed," Wenzel said. "If our country is overwhelmed or isn't prepared for this world-changing event, we have the capacity."

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