Katherine Ordonez of Omaha had never been to New York, but she’d seen plenty of movies. She knew what to expect: crowds, excitement, traffic, lots of activity.
What the 29-year-old Navy medical corpsman actually saw last month from the deck of her ship, the USNS Comfort, was a stillness as deep as the prairie in winter.
“It was beautiful, but you could feel the silence,” Ordonez said. “Not only was it quiet, but there was almost no one in the streets.”
Hospitalman Ordonez and her crewmates aboard the Navy hospital ship are now home and in quarantine, after spending a month in New York aiding the beleaguered city’s hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During April, the Comfort’s medical staff treated 182 patients, about 70% of whom were acutely ill with COVID-19.
“We saw everything that (New York hospitals) saw,” Capt. Patrick Amersbach, who commands the Comfort’s medical personnel, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia. “We were the busiest ICU in the Department of Defense over the past month.”
Twenty-five patients were on ventilators, some with multiple organ failure, the newspaper reported.
Ordonez worked as an anesthesia technician, maintaining equipment used by the ship’s anesthesiologists and assisting them as necessary. She also served as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients.
“Everyone is doing their part,” Ordonez told The World-Herald in an email. “I am doing mine along with my brothers and sisters in arms.”
Growing up in Omaha, Ordonez didn’t appear headed toward a career in medicine, or the military.
At Millard South High School — where she graduated in 2009 — her interests leaned toward music, books and writing. She joined varsity choir, Latin Club and the school’s literature magazine.
In her senior year, she was selected by the University of Nebraska Medical Center for the Project SEED internship program. The program, developed by the American Chemical Society, gives kids jobs and mentoring in university science labs.
Ordonez and two other students worked in the pathology and microbiology lab of an assistant professor at UNMC. Their work included growing protein crystals for research into infectious diseases.
“It was exciting to be a part of conducting research with great researchers,” Ordonez said.
With that boost, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and earned a degree in psychology.
Her dream, though, is to be an emergency room nurse, and she chose the Navy as the way to make that happen.
“I knew they had a medical program,” Ordonez said. “There are many opportunities, not only travel and continued education, but there are opportunities to interact with various cultures.”
She enlisted in April 2016. Four years in, Ordonez plans to make the Navy a career — eventually, she hopes to become an officer and a nurse.
“That is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
Ordonez had not seen combat before. But when the Comfort was called up to go to New York in late March, it was headed to something like a war zone. The city’s hospitals were in a crisis, short on masks, ventilators and space.
The ship had been undergoing maintenance in Norfolk when the crew received its orders.
That wasn’t easy, because many of Comfort’s medical crew are reservists who had to be mobilized from every corner of the country. The ship’s civilian crew also had to perform tests on ship systems before it could leave.
The huge white ship, emblazoned with red crosses, left Norfolk on March 28 and pulled into New York’s Pier 90 two days later. Comfort medical staff saw their first patient on April 1.
At first, their job was to handle non-coronavirus patients so that the city’s major medical facilities could focus on COVID-19 care.
But the ship, which has 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms, received only 20 patients initially. After a request by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Comfort was permitted to take on COVID-19 cases beginning April 6. The ship had to be reconfigured and the capacity limited to 500 beds to accommodate the change.
Over the next 3½ weeks, the Comfort’s wards never came close to being filled. But the medical staff still saw a number of critical COVID-19 patients, said Lt. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesman, including some with multiple organ failure.
He said they also conducted appendectomies, bronchoscopies, laparoscopic surgeries and tracheotomies. They inserted chest tubes and cared for wounds.
“Lives have been saved,” Arneson said.
Ordonez worked alongside anesthesiologists, checking the anesthesia machines to make sure they worked properly. After each procedure, she and the other anesthesia techs would sterilize the equipment and surfaces in the operating suites.
“We maintain the carts in every room, ensuring they are fully stocked,” she said.
In her spare time, Ordonez worked out at the ship’s gym or joined in other shipboard “morale, welfare and recreation” activities while following military social distancing guidelines.
She said her family in Omaha worried about her — but not too much.
“I reassured them we will be taking every precaution,” Ordonez said. “I would call them each chance that I got to let them know I was OK.”
By the end of April, the peak of the epidemic had passed. The Comfort’s staff discharged the last patient April 26 and left New York four days later.
It was completely disinfected and all crew members tested for exposure to the coronavirus before it arrived at its pier in Norfolk — absent the bands and crowds of family that usually welcome Navy ships home.
Ordonez said she last visited Omaha in May 2019, in time to see her newborn niece. She would like to come home again. But due to the pandemic and military travel restrictions, it’s not clear when that will be. She’s committed to the social distancing protocols she has learned at work, which she said are “real and needed.”
“I am at peace knowing they are safe and healthy,” Ordonez said of her family. “I can wait.”