HARLINGEN, Texas –
“We are caring for patients and all they can see are our eyes,” said U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Ariel Walker. “That is the hardest part because being human with a patient means a smile when they are doing well, or a hug when they really need it.”
A medical surgical nurse from Columbus, Georgia, Walker is describing her experience caring for patients as part of an Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force-7458, assigned to Valley Baptist Hospital, Harlingen, Texas.
She is one of more than 1,000 skilled Army Reserve medical Soldiers who were first mobilized in March to provide Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s whole-of-America response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mobilized in late July, Walker is part of an 85-person team of doctors, nurses, combat medics, respiratory therapists, and ancillary personnel that expand the capacity of care that civilian medial facilities can offer their community.
“Our mission is to provide medical support and assistance to areas that are overwhelmed with patients during the pandemic, said Walker. “Our patients can’t see us smile and often they can’t hear or understand us over all the noise or through two layers of masks. It is hard.”
She is assisting in an enhanced precautionary unit that cares for COVID patients.
“It is humbling. These are some of the sickest patients I have ever worked with. They need our help desperately,” she said.
In total, U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, has assigned approximately 590 military medical and support personnel from the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Texas.
Military service is a tradition in Walker’s family. Both her grandfathers retired from the Army, and her father served in the Air Force.
“It just seemed like something you do for a country you love,” said Walker. “My husband, then boyfriend, was in the ROTC program and I decided that was something I wanted to be part of. I am proud to be an Army nurse and join my family’s line of military service.”
Walker has the support of her husband Ian, a former Soldier.
“My family is so proud of me,” shared Walker. They are, of course, sad to see me leave my children and husband but they understand.”
“My husband understands the mission comes first and he is happy I am able to help our fellow Americans using my medical training,” she added.
Earning her Bachelors of Science in nursing from Georgia Southern University, she went on to complete a Master of Science in nursing midwifery from Frontier Nursing University. She is employed by CareConnect Cordele OB-GYN in Cordele, Georgia.
“I am the only certified nurse-midwife turned ICU nurse on this mobilization, for sure,” said Walker.
Although those responsibilities are quite different from her Army job, her past training is compatible.
“I have worked in the emergency room as a civilian,” explained Walker. “ER and ICU have many similarities, so this allows me to be flexible to meet the needs of the mission.”
As wife and mother of two young children, Walker is additionally navigating the challenges of being a breastfeeding mom through her mobilization. “We received about 4 days’ notice that we were leaving, and I was still nursing my one-year old son,” she shared.
To manage the stressors of being a mom away from her young kids and the mission, Walker focuses on family, fitness, and her teammates.
“I work out 5-6 times a week and I make sure I connect with my children and husband daily. They are my heart, and make me happy even through my toughest days,” shared Walker.
“I call my mom, who is also a nurse and working in a COVID unit, and we commiserate over the death and illness we see daily,” she said. “I also reach out to our behavioral health team as needed, they are fantastic resources, making themselves available to us to just talk through the stress and sadness that comes with this type of mobilization.”
Walker encouraged all providers that are responding to the COVID pandemic to prioritize their own self-care.
“When you look back on this time, you will have made a difference in someone’s life. Allow yourself to love your patients and be open to the heartbreak that comes along with knowing they may not survive,” she advised. “If you are struggling to process the roller coaster of such an emotional mobilization, reach out to someone. They are willing to help.”
Walker emphasized that despite expected life adjustments that come with the mobilization, she recognizes the importance of the mission.
“Whenever I am frustrated or tired, I just remember how lucky I am that I get to help the American people,” she said. “To come here and help our own is truly a humbling and enlightening experience.”