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Walsh Alum Class of 1976, a former Navy doctor, recalls serving on the Comfort

Wed, Apr 8th 2020 10:40 am

When the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001, Olean native and U.S. Navy doctor Terrence Dwyer served as the director of medical services on the USNS Comfort.

The ship was dispatched from Baltimore to New York Harbor to provide support.

The same hospital ship arrived March 30 at New York City to support efforts in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

Retired from the Navy as a captain, Dwyer is a rheumatologist with a practice in the Washington, D.C., area and treats some patients with the hydroxychloroquine medication, now believed by some to help prevent and fight the COVID-19 illness.

Dwyer, the son of Elaine Gleason, and Joe Dwyer, both of Olean, talked to the Times Herald about his role in the Navy 19 years ago when an attack by terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and damaged the Pentagon.

He also gave his thoughts on the use of the off-label hydroxychloroquine medication, as well as a medical inhibitor, that are being used by some doctors to help patients sickened by the coronavirus.

Looking back to 2001, Dwyer said the Comfort was mobilized and sailed Sept. 12, 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The ship’s role in Operation Noble Eagle was to support the New York City medical system for anticipated casualties.

While the Comfort did not see casualties, Dwyer remembers “the ship was a signal of hope,” then as now, as it steamed into the harbor to help the city.

“The fact that the Navy arrived so quickly on Sept. 13 was comforting for the region, but now without casualties, what was our mission?” Dwyer said of the questions voiced back then.

The answer materialized when the 1,000-bed hospital ship was transitioned into “a hotel, galley and laundromat” in addition to a medical facility that saw minor injuries, illnesses and some surgical procedures.

The ship was used by policemen, firemen and other first responders who converged on the WTC to help survivors and the recovery effort. As none of the first responders went home for days on end, the ship provided basic needs for them, including a place to briefly sleep, eat and take care of hygiene.

“No one knew sailing up to New York that the galley and laundry would be more important than the surgeons,” Dwyer remembers.

“As the days turned into a week, mental health services became more utilized as desperation set in,” he recalled. “The surgeons were sent home and psychiatrists and psychologists became busy.”

Dwyer also remembers that many members of Congress visited the remnants of the World Trade Center and the Comfort, including Sens. John McCain, Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, as well as then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Dwyer continued his leadership position on the Comfort during Operation Enduring Freedom. The ship’s medical capabilities were significantly tested in 2002 when more than 300 significant casualties were aboard ship — with nearly 100 of those patients in the ICU — were treated during a six-month deployment.

Dwyer retired in 2009 from the Navy with 28 years of service.

During today’s pandemic, Dwyer said he stays in touch with patients by telehealth, mostly through phone calls, which are easier for the patients, as not all have smartphones or computers.

As for his thoughts on hydroxychloroquine, Dwyer said he has prescribed many thousands of prescriptions of the medication over the years as a rheumatologist, mostly for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. It also has been effective for years in the treatment or prevention of malaria.

“Now, my first 10 messages of the day are people wanting refills, or questions about shortages of the drug,” Dwyer said. “It is a fairly safe drug to prescribe, but its effectiveness on COVID-19 is unknown.

“However, if it is to be helpful, using it early before lung disease sets in may be the key to its success,” he continued. “It is interesting that the other major drug, being used now also for COVID-19 when lung disease sets in, is an interleukin 6 inhibitor tocilizumab (Actemra) which blocks inflammation for rheumatoid arthritis.”

It is the immune response to the coronavirus that is so lethal, Dwyer said.

“Who would have ever thought two drugs rheumatologists use to reduce the immune system are two of the most used drugs to be used in a viral pandemic?” he mused.

As for his relatives in Olean, Dwyer said he, his wife, Katherine, and their four children have visited the community many times, love seeing his parents and enjoy going to family reunions.

“Our family often rents out all the rooms in the Old Library for July family reunions,” Dwyer said.

Their son, Michael, works for Ernst and Young as a CPA; their son, Brian, has Down syndrome and lives at home with them; their son Jackson, is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps; and their daughter, Maggie, is a student at the University of South Carolina and is now how taking online classes.

In final thoughts on the Comfort, Dwyer said its mission was to relieve pressure on New York hospitals to take non-COVID-19 patients.

“That mission will likely change,” Dwyer speculated. “After 9/11, we all wondered what was our next world threat; our country was united. Unfortunately, we have all (now) retreated to our corners.

“However during my career in the military, I always felt we were all united and focused in one direction,” he said. “This pandemic will take a heavy toll, but in the process may unify us as a country toward a common goal.”

(Contact reporter Kate Day Sager at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter, @OTHKate)


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