COVID Care Force – A Connection Conversation with Dr. Paul Fuhrmeister

Overview: Host Sam Levrault interviews Dr. Paul Fuhrmeister over his experience volunteering with the COVID Care Force and the Navajo Nation.

Length: 18:12 minutes

The interview may also be viewed on our youtube channel.


The following interview was conducted recorded on Dec. 15, 2020 and has been edited for clarity.



Sam Levrault: Welcome to the TCC connection. I’m Sam Levrault. I’m the managing editor here at the TCC connection. On this episode, we have special guests, Dr. Paul Fuhrmeister, thank you for joining me today. And on this episode, we’ll be talking about your experience as a medical doctor who volunteered on Navajo Nation a couple of times now in New Mexico during the Covid-19 pandemic. And so why don’t we start up with just kind of brief ideas, a little bit background, about your experiences, doctor and your time there on the Navajo Nation.

Dr. Paul Fuhrmeister: All right, I normally do urgent care clinic here. So that’s the kind of work I do. As it turned out in the spring, we were seeing very few patients here. So, our workload had was very light, but they were very, very heavy out of New Mexico in the Navajo area. So they were asking for volunteers, this organization, the COVID Care Force put out a call for volunteers. So, I answered that, and went out there for two weeks in May and two weeks in June, out to the Navajo reservation, I used to work out on the Indian Reservation before I moved to Oklahoma. So, I was familiar with that area. They were asking just for doctors and nurses to help out in all different places. They had extra work out there in the reservation, partly because they had a lot of sick people with the COVID.

At the same time, some of their staff was getting burnt out or sick and not able to work. So, they had this strange situation where they had a lot of extra work, but then fewer and fewer people to do it. And that’s why they needed some volunteers to come and help out. Plus, they had to set up a whole new clinic to do the COVID testing and things like that. In the follow ups, the contact tracing, there was just a lot of extra work. And so, they were very happy to have us come as volunteers.

I went there with a team in May and worked at Shiprock Indian Hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico, and worked mostly outdoors doing the COVID testing in the parking lot of sick people for two weeks. Then in June, I went back out I went to Gallup New Mexico and worked at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, where they were also doing COVID testing in the parking lot. And I did a lot of interviewing of the patients by phone, people who were coming to be tested.

So, on the phone, was it just kind of going over the symptom checklist before they get there?

I asked them what their symptoms were, we asked them if they had been exposed. We asked them if they’d been around anybody that had a positive test, or if they had any deaths in their family or hospitalizations. And then we arranged for the test. And then we also gave them some recommendations and advice about how to keep well and whether or not depending on their symptoms, whether or not they should quarantine, whether they should wear masks all the time just reminding with some of those things and telling them when to expect the results of the tests and what to do if it was going to be positive or negative. So, there was a lot of information for us to give them as well.

And sounds like reassurance to not just the information but the reassurance of here’s the next step. Because not everybody knows what to do while you’re waiting for that result.

We had a script to tell them because a lot of people really didn’t, you’re right. They just did not know what they were going to do if it was positive. So, we just outline the steps to them and told them somebody would call them. And if, when they might need to get tested again, and so on.

For the COVID care force, how did you hear about it and how did you join?

The COVID care force was started by a doctor up in Kansas City in the spring, specifically to help find volunteers. He’s done this before he did this before for like the Ebola outbreak in Africa and set volunteers there. So, he’s very familiar with it. He happened to have I happen to have a friend My pastor’s wife that was following him on Facebook. She told me about it when I had just chatted with her about that I wasn’t working. And she told me about this. So, I went on there to the COVID Care Force website, became very interested, especially when they were needing volunteers out in the Navajo reservation, because that’s a familiar place to me. So, I felt I felt comfortable going out there. So, I just put my name in on their website. And they contacted me, and we made arrangements, I had to send in lots of paperwork and fill out forms to get my credentials on file and apply for the right the right to work in these hospitals in New Mexico. They had to get an emergency medical license for me out there. Plus, I had to just sign so many papers and send copies of my licenses and that kind of thing to them. And they took care of that very, very quickly. So that everything was arranged before I got there

When you started work for the Care Force, as this was just developed in response to COVID, How does it compare to your past experiences with either working with the military or other things help organizations?

Well, I have to say the COVID care forces taken very, very good care of us. They made sure we had everything that we needed, and they took care of the paperwork for us. When I worked in the army, they weren’t quite as nice. We had to do a lot of things ourselves in the COVID care for us. They made our airline reservations. They made hotel reservations, they provided our meals and everything we needed. And there was somebody there, when we got there to meet us, and they kept in touch with us, if we had any problems, they would take care of everything. And myself and some others who went with me on the team, we were almost spoiled. By all of the arrangements that they made, we were able to just spend our time working.

The care force help gather the volunteers, who exactly was in charge? Was at the hospital, still kind of leading the charge. Did you have your own team?

When we when we arrived at the hospital, we were we were volunteers. And so, every hospital has a volunteer program in which they have a system and some people whose responsibility is to receive the volunteers and make sure they get various things done. The hospital has an office that handles volunteers. In fact, hospital and Shiprock had what they called an incident command center that they set up right when the COVID outbreak began, it’s part of their disaster plan, they set up a disaster command center. And that center was staffed by people whose job it was to coordinate volunteers. We weren’t the only volunteers; they did have onto from other organizations as well. And just individuals who volunteered. So, they funneled us all through the same system. The chairman of the Department of Family Practice whose job it was to assign us where we were going to work each day. And she made sure that we had everything we needed checked on us to make sure we were there, gave us the training, we needed to do our job. And then she sent us a very nice thank you note after we came home

When they were assigning you, did you have a specific department or area? I know you mentioned testing, but since you were two different locations, what were the specific areas you worked on?

The first time I went, I went to Shiprock Indian hospital. And there I joined the family practice department where they were responsible for the outpatient clinics and also responsible for the COVID testing site. And so that’s why and they were the ones that really needed the additional help. And that’s why I was assigned into the COVID testing site. I also volunteered to do some contact tracing, or some follow up phone calls to people to work with the public health nurses on the weekends, because they spend a lot of time calling people who are sick, checking on them at home, they provide oxygen for them at home, and so on. So, I spent some time working with them and making some calls as well. And that was part of the part of my assignment there. The second place I went, they had already decided they get our information in advance. So, they had already talked it over and decided that I and one of the other nurse practitioners who was with me, we would both be assigned to work in the urgent care office doing the COVID testing, especially since they only had one nurse practitioner there who was having to do all the work seven days a week. So, she was very glad that we came and once we got to train, she was able to at least have the weekend off.

That’s great that they were able to kind of make a system where, especially those who are there permanently or on a long term basis, as far as providing service, to give them a chance to rest. They can get their energy back so that they’re able to provide that care back.

Out of everyone you worked with, can you kind of give an estimate of how many were also volunteers or are just from outside of that area?

My first trip I went, we in fact had probably about six or seven volunteer people at any one time, my team, there were four of us. But there were at least maybe even four or five from other places that were there volunteering as well. And they would arrive and work and then one group of volunteers would leave, and another group would come in. So, we were kind of overlapping and we were helping each other. So normally in the testing clinic, we would have probably two of the regular staff and then some of the nursing staff who were the regular staff to help everything go properly. And we would also have maybe two volunteers although on the weekends, sometimes it would just the volunteers only taking care of things along with the nursing assistance from the hospital. Once we learn how to do things, we could pretty well run the clinic ourselves and give the regular staff a break. Likewise, I think the second time I was there in in Gallup. We had a Two of us, three of us who are volunteers and about three, also who are the regular staff,

We’re focusing kind of on your visits there. But also, since you have come back between those visits, what goes through your mind, both as a doctor, professionally, but also just coming back personally here in Oklahoma?

The thing that I noticed a lot is that people back here in Oklahoma are, are don’t they don’t see as much of the disease, at least back in the summer, they weren’t seeing so much of the disease. And so, it was strange and kind of sad to see that people in Oklahoma, we’re not taking things seriously. Very, very much not wearing masks and social distancing and thinking, thinking it’s really not nothing. But I became a little bit of a preacher telling them, no, I’ve been there. And I’ve seen it seen people dying. And I’ve seen people sick, and people who can hardly breathe at all. It’s something that’s very real. And eventually, it’s going to come here to Oklahoma to, so I became a little bit of an advocate for people to try to take it more seriously. When I did get home, I really appreciated the fact we didn’t have as much. A lot of the staff here, the nurses and doctors were not really burned out yet. Although now this fall, it’s getting more and more prevalent here in Oklahoma to so many of them are starting to have the same kind of problems getting burned out and overwhelmed.

Since things are still going on, I mean, we’ve heard in the news recently, they’re coming out with new developments with as far as the vaccine and giving it to some of the frontline workers, would you say it is still important to be kind of preventative? If you don’t have it, if you are able to quarantine or stay safe, at least in social distance, or to volunteer if you have the expertise and are able to?

Well, the first thing: Yes, I think that even though the vaccine is on the horizon, we have to be kind of double down on our wearing masks and our social distancing, and really trying to stay home and not go places that we don’t need to go to, I think we need to stay away from crowds, especially indoors, crowds, or large gatherings of people. Because the virus is going to continue to spread. It’s highly contagious.

And even with the vaccine, it’s still going to be spreading, maybe not quite as fast, but it will still be spreading for many months until it finally begins to fizzle out. And so, I think especially if we want to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed, if we want our schools to be able to stay open, because all the teachers aren’t getting sick, then we all need to be especially careful in our own personal lives. I know some people do have to go to work. But I encourage people to try to wear that mask all the time, which I try to do myself, wear the mask all the time and keep that social distance. Because the virus is still a very aggressive and it’s and there are many more cases in the community than there used to be.

In fact, there are more cases than we even know about. I’m sure there are a lot of people we don’t even know about who are carrying the illness without having any symptoms. Even when the vaccine comes it won’t be 100% protective. I have not received the vaccine yet. But after I do, I will still continue to wear my mask as much as I can just and nothing will really change for me, I just may feel a little bit more confident. I’m not so susceptible. We need to look forward to many months at least, and probably a whole other year of wearing masks and doing our social distancing until we’re able to let our guard down

For the COVID Care Force, are they still accepting volunteers? And are they still needing help in some of these other areas? Or even here in Oklahoma?

Yes, the COVID care force is still asking for volunteers. In fact, I’m leaving this weekend to go back out to New Mexico to volunteer with them. They have a lot of time during this fall. They have been asking for volunteers to work at the Shawnee nation in southern Oklahoma. And they’re they’ve been asking mostly for nurses to help with the COVID testing there. And so, they’ve placed several teams, I believe they’ve placed at least 50 teams since March in various places around the country and also in Mexico. And they are still in need of volunteers.

In fact, they’re trying to do one week volunteer trips to help relieve some of the busiest hospital some of the some of the hardest working hospitals help give the nurses or the doctors a week off. And they just started a program doing that most of the volunteer tours are two to three weeks in length. And that’s what I’ve been doing as a two week but yes, they’re still very much in need of volunteers and they’re anticipating needing volunteers all through the winter and the spring. And it’s amazing. The teams that I worked with, it’s amazing to see medical people who are in between jobs or in between classes. Some of them are working at universities and have some time in the summer. Some of them work on a temporary basis in various places. And they’ve decided to take two weeks and, and go and volunteer, it’s amazing to see the spirit of the volunteers able to go and willing to go and give two weeks of their time off.

Do you have any lessons that you have taken with you?

One thing that I really noticed is, when I went on my volunteer trips, is we were we were welcomed not only by the hospital staff, but we were very much welcomed by the community to the Navajo people, the people who live in Gallup, they were very friendly and welcoming to us and with thank us when they would see us on the street. So, we were very pleased with that.

But I also recognize that the Navajo Nation has a very strong sense of responsibility for its own people. And they had organized a lot of relief efforts. They the ladies were sewing masks for all the people, they had big food distribution programs that were organized by the Navajo Nation. In fact, the tribal chairman was out there helping distribute food. It’s not as though they’re sitting there helpless, they have a very strong sense of working together. To address the issue. We were very pleased to see how much they were taking responsibility and for them, for their own people. And yet there’s only so much they could do. And the especially the technical things that the that the doctors and nurses could provide. Those were the harder things for them to provide.

But much of relief activities were not being done by outsiders. They were being done by the Navajo people themselves. And the people, the Navajo people were very, very strict about wearing their masks. And they were very strict about standing six feet apart wearing their masks, I think they were much more making a much greater effort than we Oklahomans do, to follow the guidelines and to help prevent the spread of the of the virus. So, they were taking it very seriously. They even had a curfew at night and all weekend long. And I could see that they were they were working very hard and taking things seriously. It wasn’t as though they were just expecting someone else to take care of themselves. But the Navajo people were very strong and independent minded, and they were taking responsibility for things themselves.

Well, thank you so much for joining me today, again, my guest is Dr. Paul Fuhrmeister. I am Sam Levrault, here at the TCC connection. If people want to know more about the COVID Care Force, they can visit the website at https://covidcareforce.org/. They are also all-over social media. So, you can check all the different links. We are on social media as well. And you can visit our website or YouTube page which is where this podcast is going to be. So, thank you so much for listening and thank you for joining me