When she received the call to serve during the coronavirus pandemic, Niagara nurse Col. Dawn Flynn, ’89, didn’t hesitate. Army retirees with specific medical specialties were being asked to return to active duty, and when Col. Flynn got the notice, she immediately discussed the opportunity with her husband and two daughters. They, in turn, gave her their support, and a few weeks later she was on her way to Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., for a six-month assignment.
This was not the first time Col. Flynn has returned to duty in her more than 28 years in the military. After attending Niagara University on a four-year ROTC scholarship—the TV show “M*A*S*H” inspired her to pursue her calling to serve as an Army nurse—she began her career as a critical care nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. She left active duty after a decade, which included service in the Gulf War, and went into the Army Reserves. After 9/11, she returned to active duty to help train the medical units that were getting ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She then moved to Germany for a while when her husband, also a military professional, was stationed there. She joined the Colorado National Guard when she returned to the United States, where she was in charge of its Combat Lifesaver Program, an advanced life support skills training course for nonmedical soldiers to prepare them to assist in a medical emergency when a medic is not available. While with the National Guard, Col. Flynn again returned to active duty in 2007 to complete a short-term assignment working with the United States Northern Command on a pandemic plan.
“We were exercising the pandemic plan and never actually thought that it would come to fruition this soon,” she said.
In 2008, she rejoined the Active Guard Reserves in 2008, remaining in that program until her retirement in the fall of 2017.
In March, Col. Flynn again responded to the call of duty as part of the Army’s COVID-19 response. She works in a step-down care unit, treating military-related patients during three to four 12-hour days each week. Interestingly, calling up retirees was part of the pandemic plan she reviewed more than 10 years before.
“One of the things we recognized is that we can’t just call up the reserves, because a lot of them are civilian providers in the local healthcare system,” she explained. “We had to really think about calling up retirees, so for them to look at us as a resource was a good plan.”
Like hospitals across the nation, Madigan Army Medical Center is restricting visitation, so Col. Flynn and her colleagues are providing emotional support as well as medical care. Although she is not directly serving patients with COVID-19 (they are being isolated from the rest of the population), the pandemic is still impacting those she does care for, as well as the medical staff, she noted.
“The patients are hesitant to come to the hospital because of the fear of COVID,” she said, “so the ones that are coming in are coming in with a higher acuity because they’re staying home longer than they normally would.” She added that all hospital staff wear masks and scrubs (normally, they would be in uniform), and are being especially vigilant with hand washing, whether or not they are caring for COVID-19 patients. The need for staffing has also prevented many of them from taking the breaks and days off that typically would give them respite from their stressful days. This has led to higher tensions, Col. Flynn said, but also has fostered a supportive team environment.
“You’re never alone,” she said. “Everybody’s always helping everyone out.”
Col. Flynn is not the only Niagara nurse attending to the soldiers and civilians at Madigan Army Medical Center, she noted. Col. Louis Stout, ’91, is the chief nursing officer at the center. She was also able to reconnect with former classmate Kimberly Rhoades, ’89, who is on staff at nearby Harborview Medical Center. All three are continuing the Vincentian tradition of service through these difficult times.
“It all comes back to Niagara,” Col. Flynn said, adding that Niagara was the only school to which she applied because she knew she wanted to be a Niagara nurse. “It’s all part of that Vincentian tradition of wanting to serve the community and wanting to serve others. Just because you leave the campus, it doesn’t mean that you leave that Vincentian tradition.”