Colonel Leslie Curtis led hundreds of nurses into battle against the coronavirus at New York City's makeshift hospital in a convention center.

By Shalayne Pulia
Updated May 04, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
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Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Curtis outside the Javits Center in New York City on April 14. Photo by U.S. Army Private 1st Class Nathaniel Gayle.

As of May 1, New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center–turned–makeshift COVID-19 hospital has stopped treating patients. Military healthcare providers will continue to support staff at various NYC hospitals, and the state will determine if or when the Javits Center will be needed again as a medical facility. In the last month, 1,095 patients received care at the facility. Here's a look at how it operated.

As the chief nurse at the Javits Center, Leslie Curtis, 59, started her day at 4 a.m. For the next 17 hours, she prepped hundreds of military and civilian nursing staff as they geared up to treat the facility’s coronavirus patients, which often involved seeing over 100 new cases per day. “This isn’t a job; it’s a mission,” Curtis told InStyle. “I call it ‘MacGyver nursing.’ You have to think out of the box to function within the limitations that we’re in and still do the actual job, which is taking care of patients in a way that’s safe for us as well as for them.”

Curtis has been caring for patients long before the pandemic. She worked as a civilian nurse in her hometown of Philadelphia for a decade before joining the Army in 2001 at age 40. Since then she has been deployed three times: first to Al Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 during the height of the war; then to Baghdad in 2010; and now to New York City from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where she led nurses who were treating more than 1,000 patients per month at Brooke Army Medical Center’s cardiac unit.

A historic collaboration among medical personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force, reserves, and civilian sector came together to transform the Javits Center from what Curtis calls “a cold, gigantic warehouse” into a working 2.1 million-square-foot hospital in just 36 hours. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said of the overhaul, which supported up to 2,500 beds. “Initially, I think everybody had fear; the unknown is very powerful. But at this point in my life, I’m going to fight for what’s right, and nobody’s going to stop me. That’s what makes a true badass: not being afraid to go into the storm.”

Creating a lasting sense of security, preparedness, and purpose for her team is a top priority for Curtis, especially in chaotic times. “I try to build a sense of unity and caring,” said the mom of three and grandmother of four. “When you’re in combat, all you have is each other. And the only way you get home is by helping one another.” Curtis could not predict how long she would be at the Javits Center or how long the field hospital would be up and running. But she insisted that she and her team would be ready to face whatever challenges came their way as long as they continued to spread compassion. “My job is to make sure that I give my nurses everything they need to do their job, including all the correct PPE [personal protective equipment],” she said. “But they also need to know that someone cares about them in an environment like this. What they’re doing is amazing and important, and they are not alone.”

The most striking thing about Curtis’s current mission has been the overwhelming displays of support, both from within the Javits Center and beyond. “This is probably the friendliest I’ve ever seen the world,” she said. “People thank you in the streets — they beep their horns, they cheer — and you realize that what you’re doing is bigger than you. That gives you courage.” It also gives Curtis hope. “I think this is changing the way health care is going to be done in the future,” she said. “We’re creating a new model together — a humanitarian effort, a global effort — to fight a pandemic that affects the entire world. This is the most important thing we are ever going to do in our lifetime.”

For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 22.