A call to duty
For 22 years, Dr. Karl Woodmansey, clinical assistant professor in endodontics, envisioned performing dental work somewhere fascinating overseas in his Texas Air National Guard role. But all roads led instead to West Texas, where he’s been supervising medics at COVID-19 testing sites since late May.
Woodmansey, along with numerous Air National Guard and Texas Army National Guard teams, was activated as part of a federal and state emergency issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, who was authorized by the U.S. president to call up the state National Guard. As an officer in charge for “Joint Mission,” Woodmansey oversees one of eight teams at various sites around El Paso.
“I tried to get activated a whole bunch of times to go to cool places. This is as cool as I’ve gotten,” he says.
Cool it’s not. Each morning, his five-medic team sets up a small canopy, usually near a sweltering-hot concrete parking lot as temperatures soar past 100. Medics in PPE—masks, gowns, gloves and face shields—are out in the sun most of the day as they tend to car after car of patients possibly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
Woodmansey oversees the entire process, including correctly obtaining and maintaining the samples, labeling each to match patients’ names and IDs, then appropriately storing and transporting. Just as important, he says, is being responsible for the medics’ personal safety while they work with potentially infected patients.
“We’ve kind of become a de facto family group,” he says.
Seeing entire families who are obviously miserable and suffering pulls at the heart strings, and swabbing little kids is the hardest, he says. Yet, being here reminds Woodmansey of why he signed up for the guard in the first place: to give.
“One of the common talking points of this mission is ‘Texas helping Texans,’” he says. “I am proud to be helping Texans, glad to be contributing, happy to be serving in a useful capacity.”
With six days on and one day off—which is mostly spent doing laundry and catching up on emails—the days can all blend together.
“It’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day’ every day. We get up, we go to a site, we set up, and cars start lining up, and we do testing all day,” he says. “Then we take down our equipment stored in a big Penske truck, load our 17 personnel into our two passenger vans and drive back to our hotel.”
The team’s workload took an uptick recently when swabbing went from between 100 to 150 per day to nearly 250. On that particular Friday, Woodmansey says dozens of cars snaked back so far that he couldn’t see the end.
“My site was swamped. The populace is panicked now,” he says. “All testing sites had lines, lines, lines. It was a brutal day. I think I had a 10-minute break in that whole eight-hour day. It was chaos. We’re pedaling as fast as we can.”
Surprisingly, there have been silver linings. The drier air has been a blessing, Woodmansey notes. And as the weeks in El Paso plod on, another unexpected twist has caught his attention: It’s a small world in the dental profession. Despite being 600 miles from home, the dental school feels very close as an amazed Woodmansey experiences six degrees of separation.
In mid-June, a Texas Woman’s University senior, who is also a Texas Air National Guardsman, was assigned to Woodmansey’s team as support personnel. When he found out Woodmansey was a Dallas dentist, he shared his plans to go to dental school, and he had a million questions. The endodontics faculty member answered what he could, and then a light bulb went off. Two Texas A&M College of Dentistry graduates, Dr. Christian Lepure ’20 and Dr. Shayna Abie ’20, recently relocated to El Paso, Woodmansey remembered, and they would have the best student-focused view. Not only did the TWU student get the information he needed, but Lepure and Abie invited Woodmansey over for dinner.
Those dental connections have been a bright spot, he says, especially as the pandemic resurges and the guard’s work is far from over. What was supposed to be a one-month mission morphed into two. As July 31 nears, he wonders if his extended end date will be pushed back again, just like it has for some of his fellow team members.
“My heart goes out to those who are separated from their spouses and children,” he says. “It’s easier for me since I don’t have any family.”
Woodmansey’s Texas A&M dental family, however, is holding down the fort for him until he returns. Endodontic residents and dental students are housesitting and taking care of his cats.
“I miss my contact with the dental students and endodontic residents, as well as my faculty colleagues. I miss teaching and I miss dentistry. I look forward to returning to A&M,” he says.