A humble hero of America’s COVID-19 response
Written by: Brian Donnelly
In one 29-hour period, a nurse practitioner assessed and treated some of the earliest COVID-19 patients in the US stuck aboard a cruise ship off the coast of California.
Bouncing back and forth in nautical step with the rough tide of the San Francisco coast, Bryan Lovejoy, DNP, 37, and his eight-person team passed under the Golden Gate Bridge; then the Bay Bridge in a small US Coast Guard patrol boat.
It was March 8, 2020.
“It was actually a nice little cruise when you get right down to it,” Mr. Lovejoy said, despite the sounds of seasickness surrounding him. “There were whales at one point, just kind of jumping around out there.”
Passing Alcatraz, the nurse practitioner at North Shore University Hospital (NSUH) — now farther than 3,000 miles from home — knew they were getting close to their destination — a 1,000-foot, 14-deck luxury cruise liner carrying 2,300 passengers and 1,100 crew members. The Grand Princess had been stuck 50 miles off the coast for days due to COVID-19 spreading rapidly among those onboard.
“I was kind of nervous about it. I saw the news,” he said. “The plan at the time was to try to keep this novel coronavirus out of the US as much as we could. Of course, we soon found out community spread was inevitable.”
The father of two and Smithtown, NY, resident is part of a 30-member disaster medical assistance team (DMAT). On behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, DMAT responds to areas impacted by a health care crisis, like natural disasters, when local response capabilities are impaired.
In 2017 Mr. Lovejoy spent two weeks in both Houston and Puerto Rico in response to deadly hurricanes.
“You just don’t know what you’re going into entirely,” he said. “The situations are very dynamic.”
But, from March 8-9, an eight-person DMAT contingent faced a threat unlike any they had seen before.
“Our main objective was to identify how prevalent COVID-19 was on the ship before taking passengers off,” said Mr. Lovejoy, who joined DMAT in 2007. “Not many people had any experience with this virus yet, and definitely not on a cruise ship.”
Mr. Lovejoy’s coworkers at NSUH saw their first COVID-19 patient March 7, while he was heading out west to his next mission.
“Especially under the circumstances we are in during a crisis, it takes a leader like Mr. Lovejoy to put aside his personal priorities and become actively involved in a life-threatening mission like this,” said Susan Wirostek, nurse manager at NSUH.
There are two months each year during which a DMAT volunteer can be called into service, which is why Mr. Lovejoy keeps a bag packed with some basic necessities.
“You never really get used to it,” said Mr. Lovejoy’s wife, Dawn, 39. “Every situation is different. They’re all anxiety producing in their own way.”
The call for this latest mission came just before midnight on March 6. After spending a day with their kids, Julia, 9, and James, 5, he and Dawn were watching a movie — John Wick 2.
“Sometimes I have very limited notice,” he said, adding he still hasn’t seen the end of that movie. “I’m given my travel orders, I pack my bags and I’m out within a day going to wherever this is.”
Boarding the Grand Princess
Mr. Lovejoy was on a plane by 8 a.m. the next morning. Leaving his family, he said, is often the most difficult part of his work.
“This one definitely stood out as the worst,” Dawn added, “because as time progressed the virus got worse and worse here in New York. I was scared.”
With the Grand Princess in sight, the team of eight braved high swells and dangerous conditions to board a life raft sent to their US Coast Guard transport – the first of two “high consequence, zero margin transfers,” wrote Robert Kadlec, MD, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR), in a letter of commendation to Mr. Lovejoy.
“After safely boarding the Grand Princess, Mr. Lovejoy quickly demonstrated his clinical competencies and selfless focus on the mission as part of the HASTY rapid triage team, which executed near continuous operations for 29 hours, while wearing bio-containment equipment,” the high-ranking DHHS official wrote.
Jumping from the lifeboat onto the cruise ship ladder, Mr. Lovejoy’s team scaled the massive vessel, rung-by-rung.
“It’s big,” he admitted, quick to downplay the feet. “It didn’t take too long. I just remember thinking, ‘don’t look down and don’t let go.’”
Playing a crucial role
Starting near 7 p.m., Mr. Lovejoy worked through the night and into the next day, performing medical assessments and triage of more than 1,100 US citizens — breaking only for emergency rehydration. Mr. Kadlec wrote that their effort, “played a crucial role in the pre-positioning of critical medical assets, supporting personnel and operational planning by federal, state and local emergency responders.”
With his mission complete, the Grand Princess was allowed to dock and passengers to disembark from the ship. Those that showed symptoms of the virus had to be isolated and those that weren’t had to be quarantined — data now known thanks to Mr. Lovejoy and his team.
“And because of the nature of everything I ended up getting quarantined myself,” said Mr. Lovejoy, whose entire team spent 14 days at the University of Nebraska. “And fortunately we never ended up showing symptoms or getting sick.”
Both in quarantine and upon his return home and to work in late March, the lifelong Long Islander had a heightened fear, Dawn said, of contracting the novel virus.
“I have asthma, so I didn’t know how well I’d respond if I did get it,” Mr. Lovejoy added.
A quiet hero
When he left the Grand Princess March 9, there were 647 reported cases of COVID-19 in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the time he returned home March 23, there were more than 44,000 cases. That number nearly doubled when he returned to work a few days later.
Knowing this – and his particular risk — Mr. Lovejoy knew, still, where he needed to be. Like walking door-to-door on the Grand Princess, he floated from COVID unit-to-COVID unit at NSUH throughout the crisis, treating the explosion of patients showing up daily.
“When he went on the mission and when he goes to work every day, he knows how vulnerable he is,” Dawn said. “So, I consider him just a quiet hero, leading in his own way.”
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