Military Veterans Head to N.Y.C. to Staff COVID-19 Field Hospital Named for Late Navy SEAL

"What a wonderful way to honor his memory and also put into use these critical medical skills," Ryan Larkin's dad tells PEOPLE

Ryan F. Larkin. hospital
Photo: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/ Facebook

In New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the healthcare system has been straining with more than 34,000 people hospitalized (out of 129,000 confirmed cases) and an estimated 13,000 dead. A group of former military medics and medical personnel have come to their aid.

A voluminous indoor soccer stadium and field, known as “the Bubble” to Columbia University’s Lions who use it for winter practice, has been converted into the Ryan F. Larkin Field Hospital — named for a late Navy SEAL and medic who had undiagnosed brain scarring and killed himself three years ago.

“What a wonderful way to honor his memory and also put into use these critical medical skills,” says Frank Larkin, Ryan’s father and a former Navy SEAL and retired Secret Service agent. “I believe Ryan is up there with them, just in a different form.”

The temporary hospital, a joint project of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian with Columbia University, is staffed by 115 former military medics, nurses and support personnel and can care for up to 216 coronavirus patients. The facility includes a mobile intensive-care unit.

“These guys and women know what it’s like to see people oppressed and terrified. We’re here to liberate the oppressed. That is literally the special ops mission,” says Dr. Kate Kemplin, chief nursing officer and deputy director of the hospital.

On the day the hospital opened, a double rainbow appeared over upper Manhattan. “I totally think that was Ryan,” says Kemplin. Though she never met him, she was asked to attend his funeral by a mentor of his who couldn’t make it. She was so moved she subsequently changed her PhD dissertation to the issue of blast TBIs — the same kind of traumatic brain injury Ryan’s family believes plagued him in his last years as a result of his military service.

Kemplin lost her ex-husband the same way. Ryan’s father has since become an advocate for increased funding, awareness and treatment of blast TBIs.

“Most of these people may have not met Ryan in person, but they know Ryan,” Kemplin says. The special ops community immediately understood the implications of the hospital taking his name.

“He was really a caregiver, everybody who knew Ryan as a clinician said that he was wonderful to them,” Kemplin tells PEOPLE. “Anybody can learn how to diagnose and treat, to deliver interventions to improve someone’s health status. But to really have the empathy to put yourself in someone’s shoes, that’s really the different. You can sense a difference between professionalism and empathy. He had the ‘it’ factor — he was not just a good medic, he was a good caregiver.”

Ryan Larkin
Unknown teammate / courtesy Larkin family

Kemplin says SEAL medics don’t just breach walls and doors and fire on enemy targets. They are often in the middle of a clandestine operation in a remote location when a teammate or villager gets sick. If they can’t get the person to a healthcare facility, it’s the medic who is responsible for keeping them alive.

“It’s prolonged field care, critical care nursing,” Kemplin says. “They also deliver babies, take care of locals in a little village and bring humanitarian medicine into these far-flung, sometimes very hostile places.”

Kemplin and Dr. Melissa Givens, a recently retired colonel and medical director of the field hospital, had confidence that the special ops medics could jump in to assist N.Y.C.’s doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo relaxed regulations so they could work without civilian credentials. Once the call went out with Ryan’s name attached, “It was like putting out a Bat signal, like Batman,” Kemplin says.

“Every medic knew immediately what the mission of this hospital is,” she continues.

In three days, they were oversubscribed with 600 sign-ups from as far away as the Arctic and South Africa. Many left their jobs and their families.

kate kemplin

“We know what we’re walking into — every single patient in there has COVID,” Kemplin says, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. “These COVID medics who can jump out of a plane at 40,000 feet or scuba to get to their targets, they are talking to these patients, cleaning them. These guys and women are absolutely all about being right there for these patients.”

Despite the virus saturating the field hospital, the former military medics have no hesitation. “We want to show New York City that we’re listening, we’re here,” Kemplin says. “Ryan would have been right here right alongside us.”

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