Retired Army officer helps hospital on the front lines

Retired Army Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, second from right, helped set up the New York-Presbyterian field hospital.


By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: April 18, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — Fred Wellman's decision to help establish a field hospital in the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in America didn't surprise his daughter at all.

Morgan Wellman saw him do that time and again during his 22 years in Army, when the former lieutenant colonel worked in special operations from Desert Storm to Iraq.

"We always called him a fixer, he was good at assessing and delegating what needed to happen," she said, adding that his family knew how vital his work was. "We were kind of raised on the notion of sacrificing for the greater mission, and this is a very important mission, and we couldn't be more proud of him."

Fred Wellman currently lives in Richmond, but the former Stafford County resident has close ties to the area. His daughter and ex-wife run Sugar & Spruce in downtown Fredericksburg, and he also worked with local residents through ScoutComms Inc., a public relations firm that supports veterans and military communities.

Wellman, 54, recently was intrigued when he heard friends talk about efforts on the part of NewYork – Presbyterian Hospital to build a field hospital inside the athletic "Bubble" at Columbia University's Baker Field. The masterminds of the concept were military veterans like him, and they wanted to staff the facility with former medics, EMTs and other veteran clinicians who'd been on special ops as Wellman had. The facility would serve COVID-19 patients who were sick enough to need hospital care but didn't require ventilators.

Wellman liked the idea to give former sailors and soldiers the chance to serve when they were most needed. The only problem was, he didn't have a medical background.

But as he talked with Kate Kemplin, the head nurse of operations, he learned the facility needed a chief of staff--someone to track patients, handle logistics and put on paper all the needed procedures for medics who would be rotating in and out of the hospital.

Wellman thought the job sounded a lot like a battalion's executive officer--a position he'd handled in Iraq.

"Would you take me?" he asked Kemplin.

That was on a Wednesday, and within 36 hours, Wellman was headed north to New York City. By the following Tuesday, April 14, the hospital in the bubble was accepting its first patients. The facility has 216 beds in the dome, which is normally used as an indoor practice facility for Columbia's football, men's and women's soccer, baseball, softball, field hockey and lacrosse teams.

"I've never seen anything like it. It's herculean what they did," Wellman said about the six-day effort involved in turning a sports dome into a hospital. "But this isn't mud medicine, this is truly a functioning hospital, following NewYork – Presbyterian rules and complying with state law. It's not a ramshackle thing in the mud."

The 90,000-square-foot space has protective flooring and has been outfitted with electricity, oxygen ports, plumbing and other critical equipment, according to a story on NewYork – Presbyterian's website.

Military medics are on the front lines, working with COVID-19 patients, and all operations are overseen by the hospital's medical staff. "We all know nurses run the joint," Wellman said.

Like others, he's working long days, but has been amazed by the instant camaraderie among veterans from all branches and practically every state in the country.

"There's this bond that we share of service," Wellman said.

Dr. Missy Givens, a retired Army colonel and emergency medicine physician, said the same. She got involved through her friendship with Dr. Laureen Hill, chief operating officer of NewYork – Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

"This is what the military community is all about," Givens said in the story on the hospital website. "This was a resource that was going to waste. This hospital is giving an opportunity to employ these folks and change the paradigm of military medics who leave the service."

Kemplin added: "This is a good opportunity to showcase the incredible clinical expertise of Special Operations medics, whose skills and acumen are really not known in the civilian medical world."

The field hospital is named for the late Ryan F. Larkin, a decorated Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wellman said it's fascinating to be "in the middle of the crisis, to see for yourself" the number of sickened people and overwhelmed hospitals. Each night at 7, residents cheer, honk horns and bang pots and pans in honor of those who are fighting to save lives during the pandemic, Wellman posted on Facebook.

"Tonight our team was out in front of our field hospital in upper Manhattan for it," he wrote. "I've marched in victory parades that didn't feel as good as this. Thank you, New York."


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