LeConte Surgical Associates general surgeon Matthew Bridges, MD, isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
“I have a bad habit of running toward the bullets instead of away from them.”
It was late March 2020 when Dr. Bridges received the call to set up a new unit amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Army wanted to deploy a medical team to assist hospitals in a major city. Dr. Bridges, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, was asked to command it.
“It was like, ‘No one’s ever done it before — we don’t even know what it’s going to look like, and we don’t know where you’re going.’”
Experience Paves the Way
After graduating from medical school in 1995, Dr. Bridges joined the Army and became part of a unit that was regularly deployed wherever medical help was needed.
“The last few times we’ve been attached to Special Forces units that were outside the diameter of medical care. We carried as much equipment as we could carry, they would take us to where they were fighting, then we would set up and do whatever they did.”
Even though the surgeons weren’t trained alongside Special Forces, there was a sense of mutual respect.
When Dr. Bridges found out he was needed to head up a medical project during the pandemic, he was ready to face whatever was ahead. Without knowing exactly where he was going, what he would be doing there or how long he would stay, he took a flight and waited for orders.
The final destination was Edison, New Jersey, where the streets were empty and the hospitals were full. The medical team was ushered to a convention center that had been quickly adapted to accommodate 250 beds. The Army contracted lab services, food service and pharmacy. The ultrasound he used was a portable one.
“You just did the best you could with what you had.”
The original concept was for Dr. Bridges’ team to take only cases that weren’t related to COVID-19, but the virus was so overwhelming that plans soon changed. A space that once hosted sports events and concerts became a fully functioning COVID unit.
He remembers the “total disconnect” when he shared phone conversations with his wife in what seemed like a different world. The virus hadn’t surged in Tennessee, but in New Jersey COVID-19 was at its peak.
At the end of two months, Dr. Bridges’ makeshift COVID unit was ready to be handed over to the local health officials in New Jersey. He came home to East Tennessee and immediately went into quarantine.
When the region’s case numbers began to rise later, Dr. Bridges was ready. COVID protocols from hand washing to gown changes to patient care had been developed first by the Army.
“I was familiar with how to deal with patients and the kinds of things that no one here had seen because COVID behaves differently. You don’t see people going into renal failure from the flu. You don’t see 20-year-olds dying from cardiac failure from the flu or experiencing critical blood clots that can result in amputation.”
Honored for Groundbreaking Care
This year, Dr. Bridges’ work was recognized by Business Executives for National Security, a national nonprofit organization of leaders who support government efforts to make the U.S. a safer place to live. In true pandemic style, the black-tie event usually held at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was changed to a virtual event.
Among other distinguished honorees on the Zoom call were award recipients Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States.
Dr. Bridges’ experience also has been documented by the Army for future reference. The work was hard and there were many dark days, but he’s glad he was able to be part of the groundbreaking effort to serve his country during a crisis.
“It was just thrown together like, ‘pack your bags and we’ll figure out what we’re doing when we get there – but we need you. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
About Matthew Bridges, MD
Dr. Matthew Bridges is board certified in general surgery and has more than 25 years of medical experience. He is part of the surgical team at LeConte Surgical Associates and cares for patients at LeConte Medical Center.
For more information about Dr. Bridges, please click here to see his profile.