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Retired Army doctor returns to service to challenge COVID-19, advocate for veteran military medics

Dr. Melissa Givens (center), cuts the ribbon to officially open the Ryan Larkin New York-Presbyterian Field Hospital in New York City.  Givens and her colleague, Kate Kemplin, led efforts to construct and staff the hospital in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Courtesy photo)
By Zachary Willis

Dr. Melissa “Missy” Givens rarely backs down from a challenge; in fact, she often seeks them out.  So, it was no surprise that she jumped straight from the Army frying pan right into the COVID-19 fire.  The retired Army colonel is now working tirelessly to bring more than 20 years of experience to the Ryan Larkin New York-Presbyterian Field Hospital (RLFH) she helped establish to combat the pandemic – an opportunity she jumped at to continue her service to the nation.

“I’m the quintessential emergency medicine doctor – I thrive in chaos,” said Givens. “I really enjoy helping people find a way to make a horrible situation a positive one. War taught me that human
connections make any situation not only bearable, but joyous inside the misery.”

Uniformed Services University alumni
Dr. Melissa Givens (left), Dr. Samual
Sauer (center), and Dr. Shannon
Emory (right) are among
hundreds of former military
medical professionals who stepped
forward to care for patients at the
Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in
New York City. (Courtesy photo)
Givens graduated from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in 1997 with a Doctor of Medicine degree and later earned her Master of Public Health degree from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Since then, she has spent her time leading medical response for some of the most nuanced missions within the Special Operations community, and has used her expertise as an educational leader and associate professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine at USU to educate the next generation of military health care providers to follow in her footsteps. Retirement didn’t stop her from looking for ways to serve.

“Veterans never lose their sense of duty,” said Givens. “When the world needs us, we answer.”

And so she answered the call to provide assistance to hard-hit New York City.  Givens’ friend, and now Chief Nurse, Kate Kemplin, told her that first responders needed help, so she dropped everything and started visiting firehouses and talking to others about their needs.  Another friend put her in touch with Dr. Laureen Hill, the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at New York-Presbyterian/ Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and the RLFH was born, with Givens at the helm as medical director.  Challenge accepted.

Dr. Melissa Givens serves as a “patient” for staff during a training scenario at the Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in New York City.  (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Melissa Givens serves as a "patient"
for staff during a training scenario
at the Ryan Larkin Field Hospital
in New York City. (Courtesy Photo)
The plan for the field hospital was for a 200+-patient capacity with a 47-bed emergency department overflow outpost.  Using the power of social media, Givens was able to assemble more than 600 volunteers, including fellow USU alumni Dr. Samual Sauer (SOM ‘96) and Dr. Shannon Emory (SOM ‘97) and a wealth of former military medics, to help construct and staff the hospital and provide care.  The facility opened April 14 and saw its first patient shortly after.

“Military veteran medics are a valuable resource,” said Givens, advocating for a vital cause. “They are well-trained and resourceful, and they should be welcomed into the civilian medical community and given the training and opportunity to make the transition.”

In addition to her advocacy for military medics, Givens encourages everyone to pay attention to the name of her field hospital.

“Ryan Larkin – we named the field hospital after him for a reason,” said Givens.

The hospital is named after Navy SEAL Ryan Larkin, a medic who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After struggling with an undiagnosed brain injury, Larkin passed away by suicide in 2017 and Givens wants to raise as much awareness to the cause as possible.

Frank Larkin rings a nautical bell during a dedication ceremony at the Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in New York City.   The bell, a tribute to his son and hospital namesake, is rung three times as patients are discharged from the  field hospital.  (Courtesy photo)
Frank Larkin rings a nautical bell during a dedication ceremony at the Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in New York City. 
The bell, a tribute to his son and hospital namesake, is rung three times as patients are discharged from the
field hospital.  (Courtesy photo)
“Military TBI is an issue that needs attention,” said Givens. “We want to raise awareness so we can continue to do better for our service members and veterans.”

The RLFH continues to serve COVID-19 patients in need, fully staffed with ready, willing and very able volunteers, despite the constant threat of exposure.

“There is no challenge too big when you open your arms to the people and resources around you.”

Retired Army Col. (Dr.) Melissa Givens, USU class of
1997, is leading a 200+ bed field hospital in New York City
constructed and staffed almost solely by former military
medics, nurses, and physicians. (Courtesy photo)