Forrest General Doctor Serves on Frontlines of COVID-19 in New York City
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – (June 22, 2020) Photos of an empty Times Square and the Lincoln Tunnel void of any cars, are just a couple of the photos cardiologist Lawrence (Larry) Leader, DO, has on his cell phone from his recent Naval deployment to New York City. His memories are just as vivid of the happy faces of COVID-19 patients using his cell phone to call or Facetime family members they were not able to see in person.
Leader recently returned to his job at Forrest General Hospital and Hattiesburg Clinic after working for two months in a field hospital in New York City. Leader is commander of Pensacola Detachment B in Gulfport, the state’s Seabee base, where he trains once a month. He was among medical specialists from across the nation and all branches of the military who were deployed to New York during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given two days’ notice, Leader didn’t know where he was going until the night before he left. His destination was the Big Apple and what he saw firsthand was overwhelming. For two months, Leader worked in an ICU unit set up at the Javits Center, a 760,000-square-foot facility that was established as a field hospital to potentially hold 2,000 patients. “They changed it from a convention center to a mobile hospital,” he said of the facility where he worked 12-hour shifts and didn’t see his first day off until two or three weeks into his deployment.
The center, which was outfitted with essential equipment, handled the overload from New York City hospitals which were overflowing with sick patients. Leader said when he arrived he wasn’t expecting to find the scene that met him. “I was expecting it to be less severe,” he said. “The homeless and mentally ill, practically everyone, was off the streets. We only started seeing cars on the streets when we were leaving. There was a tremendous transition in just a month’s time. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes.”
Leader likened the scene to that of Hurricane Katrina. “You see photos and say, ‘Oh, that’s bad,’ but you get there, and it’s another experience,” he said, noting the process of dealing with patients, learning protocols and a routine, how to treat COVID patients and how doing things differently can affect you. “That’s what it looks like when a major city gets overwhelmed. That was another experience.”
“Although there has been an increase in numbers, we haven’t been overwhelmed (in Hattiesburg) like New York,” he said of the situation there involving two and three patients per room, patient beds lining the halls or other situations which were less than ideal.
During his stay, Leader did pick up on some ideas he brought back which could potentially be used on the local level. At home, Leader practices as a cardiologist, but in the Big Apple, he was able to use some of the skills he learned while serving his internal medicine residency; however, other healthcare professionals came to him to look at EKGs and help deal with cardiology issues.
While free time was rare, Leader said when going out his group always traveled as a unit. “You never ventured out alone, but with a buddy,” he said. And they did have a perimeter they had to stay within. Leader didn’t mind the work. “One thing about working is you don’t think too much; you think about what you’re doing. When you sit back and think back to all you’ve seen, you can get overwhelmed.”
Sometime after shifts, Leader helped move patients to the Comfort, a Navy hospital ship which was docked just out back. Leader said the floating hospital had things they didn’t have at the Javits Center. “Their ICU is phenomenal,” he said of the Comfort’s open concept intensive care unit.
With such a short window of time to prepare to deploy, Leader didn’t have much time to mentally prepare for what was ahead. “I knew I was going to be with people I knew, which helps,” he said. There was one other person from Leader’s unit who also deployed to NYC. “Camaraderie in the military is terrific and being on the same team really helps.” While Leader always keeps a bag ready to go at a moment’s notice, he said not knowing if he would be in a hotel, out in the field, or on a ship, what to take with him was an issue. “I probably brought a little bit more than what I actually needed.”
Leader stayed in touch with wife, Nancy, and other Pine Belt friends as his schedule permitted, which provided a release from his long days.
Leader said the community outpouring, in both New York and the Pine Belt, provided a big morale boost. “It was one of the big things for us that helped,” he said. Being away from home and extending yourself a lot into another community is sometimes difficult, but Leader said members of the city were always nice and thankful. “Every time the community saw us they would say, ‘thank you,’ and even though we didn’t need it, it was always nice.”
The Hattiesburg community also got behind Leader helping a Facebook post go viral. The post on the Forrest General Facebook page thanking Leader for his “dedication, service and sacrifice for our country,” was shared 545 times, had 1,686 interactions, and 85,405 impressions. Leader was presented with a framed copy of the post, the largest to date as of April 7, 2020, as well as a printout of all the comments.
Leader has never experienced another deployment such as this. “You never think of a physician going to war; but, when the enemy is the virus, you’re the perfect soldier,” he said. “I think we played a good role in helping New York recover as quickly as it did.”
CAPTION: Lawrence (Larry) Leader, DO, recently returned from a two-month deployment to a field hospital in New York City, where he and other healthcare professionals from around the country treated COVID-19 patients. Upon his return, he was presented a framed copy of Forrest General’s Facebook post announcing his deployment, and thanking him for his service and dedication, which went viral.