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New York’s Dunkirk moment

On one April night, hospitals from Pennsylvania to Albany sent a fleet of helicopters to help evacuate New York COVID-19 patients needing oxygen

New York’s Dunkirk moment

A STAT MedEvac aircraft (Shawn Olah)

ANDY BRACKBILL AND HIS WIFE, Pamela, were up late Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday. He passed the time scanning Flight Radar 24, a flight tracking app. Brackbill said he was“doing my usual clicking on certain planes/helicopters at different places around the country, just to see who they were and where they were going.” 

Something on the map caught Brackbill’s attention. A flurry of medical helicopters was leaving New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), heading out in all different directions, one leaving one right after another. He wondered if they were evacuating COVID-19 patients from overwhelmed New York hospitals to facilities with more resources. 

“My wife and I took time to weep and pray for those who are desperate for care and possibly gasping for their breath on those helicopters, but also with thankfulness for the sacrifice of those involved in these efforts and the amazing teamwork that would go along with these efforts,” said Brackbill. 

On Twitter, other aviation enthusiasts puzzled over the swarm of medevacs at JFK. “Lots of EMS helicopters heading to JFK airport right now. One just departed, am I missing something?” one wrote. 

Others responded that the medevacs must be picking up organs or protective equipment unloaded from a plane at JFK.

“Maybe ... just surprised to see so many machines going in and out of there,” one person replied.

“It’s odd,” another agreed. 

Brackbill’s guess was right, according to the medical evacuation teams working that night. A New York hospital had to evacuate 28 intubated patients Tuesday because its piped oxygen system “was having trouble delivering enough oxygen,” according to Hartford Hospital’s Life Star helicopter service. Life Star evacuated one of those patients to Albany Medical Center, in the state capital. 

It was a small Dunkirk moment: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York coming to the rescue of the Big Apple. Most of the flurry of medevacs that night went to Albany, the plain city that on a normal day receives indifference from its glittery southern neighbor. Helicopters from Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey, Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, and Life Net of New York flew to JFK, then on to Albany. A medevac from Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, around the same time, also departed JFK to go to Albany, well out of its normal flight pattern.


Albany Medical Center (Handout)

THE OXYGEN CRISIS AROSE at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, which has borne a heavy load of COVID-19 patients and has transferred other patients to Albany in the last week. The coronavirus makes oxygen strain a big problem for hospitals, which are not designed to provide such a flow of oxygen to so many patients in respiratory failure. Ambulances and their paramedic crews from around the country, in New York to help with the virus response, lined up outside Jamaica to take patients to JFK for medevacs out of the city. Some went to the USNS Comfort hospital ship. 

Flight records tell more of the story. Within a few hours late Tuesday night, at least 11 medical helicopters converged at JFK and then spread to hospitals from Albany to Philadelphia. One upstate medevac service, Life Net of New York, did two runs from JFK to Albany that night, with its final trip departing JFK at 1:30 a.m. STAT Medevac, another air ambulance service in Pennsylvania, activated four aircraft. 

Air evacuation service Air Methods, which has been coordinating many patient transfers out of COVID-19-slammed hospitals in the city, kicked into gear as news came of Jamaica’s overburdened oxygen system. Its communication center in Omaha, Neb., helped dispatch 23 aircraft to be ready for evacuating patients from JFK. 

Air Methods’ Jennifer Noce, based in Syracuse, was on the ground at Jamaica Hospital, which was clearly overwhelmed. She began coordinating with Jamaica’s emergency director and charge nurse to locate patients needing transport to Albany Medical Center. The patients were on different floors, so Noce said she “made friends with security” and had them help her locate and move patients—all intubated and on ventilation. 

Another Air Methods co-worker was on the ground at JFK managing the wave of medevac crews, while co-worker William Stubba, another Air Methods manager and an experienced paramedic from Poland, N.Y., managed all the moving pieces.

“Bill would call me: ‘I have this asset from this aircraft at JFK, and they’re coming to you,’” said Noce, who was double-checking everything on a spreadsheet while in full protective gear. “I’ve never truly been involved in a real-life scenario like this. This is why you do this, to truly help people. For every crew member that came in, it was about making a difference in someone’s life.”

Stubba insisted it was a day like any other: a day paramedics train for. But he admitted it was a “very hectic evening,” mobilizing flight crews and helicopters after midnight: “These are very stressful, trying times, but given the inherent nature of what we are as nurses, paramedics, this is what we do. This is our own little battlefield that we enter.”

Matthew S. Gunby/AP

A helicopter ambulance pilot receives a salute after delivering a patient to a medical center in Maryland. (Matthew S. Gunby/AP)

UPSTATE HOSPITALS, which have few local cases of the virus, have been taking COVID-19 patients from the city since the beginning of the month. The need for ICU care for New York patients is particularly high. Before the outbreak, New York had 3,000 ICU beds, 80 percent of which were already occupied. As of Monday, there were 4,593 New Yorkers in intensive care. 

Albany Medical Center wouldn’t comment on the medevacs from JFK but confirmed it has been accepting transferred COVID-19 patients from the city since April 1. As of Wednesday the hospital had received 46 transferred patients from “downstate,” said spokesperson Sue Ford Rajchel, while hospitals in the Albany area have in total accepted 91 patients from downstate. For context on how significant this aid is to the Big Apple, the entire Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park can serve 68 patients, with 10 of those beds for ICU care. The Albany hospital has said accepting COVID-19 transfers will not prevent it from treating any local patients. 

“Albany Med believes firmly in our mission to care for those who need us,” said Ford Rajchel. 

Others were also ready to pitch in: Around the same time Tuesday night, a Johns Hopkins medevac flew from JFK to Baltimore, well out of its normal flight pattern. Air Methods said that medevac didn’t need to transport a patient after all. Air Methods said its aircraft came from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. STAT MedEvac from Pennsylvania also had two helicopters leave JFK that night, headed for Pennsylvania hospitals. In New York, medevacs cannot land on hospitals because of a ban on rooftop helipads after the 1977 helicopter crash into the Pan Am building. 

When I was at Jamaica, and I’m in the ER, people are saying, ‘Thank you for helping,’” said Noce. “Staff, FDNY. That’s just the type of embrace that you had from everybody. It’s a team effort. Upstate, downstate, we’re all in this together, and we really need to help each other.”

“There’s still dialogue with people we have connected with down there,” said Stubba. “‘How are you doing today?’ New friends reaching out to new friends.” 

New York is in perhaps the worst chapter of its fight against the virus, with 18,279 hospitalized in the state from the virus and daily deaths around 800. Data indicate hospitalizations are leveling off, but deaths are still rising.

This is a heroic effort and indicates they are pulling out all the stops to get as many patients to lifesaving care as possible,” said Brackbill.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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    Posted: Fri, 04/10/2020 03:59 pm


  • RR
    Posted: Sat, 04/11/2020 08:09 pm

    Great heroic news. I commend those workers and those praying. But please don't compare this time to that of WWII. No one was under enemy fire. 

  • Kingdomnetworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/13/2020 11:42 am

    The enemy here is the Grim Reaper... alias, COVID 19. The mission was (and is) to get them out of a place which could not help them (with Oxygen) to a place that could help. Death is stalking each one, for many of these delay means death, as surely as it did at Dunkirk.

  • Ed Schick
    Posted: Sun, 04/12/2020 06:10 am

    Thank-you for the insightful news an information that gives us a clearly picture of what is really going on in these hospitals. The main stream media is not giving reports like this because it does not serve their sensationalizing of this localized crisis to appear like it is a mega-crisis for the whole country. I would like to know more about how New York City's 3,000 icu capacity is managing with 4,593 patients. Please gives us more good information. :)