Feature   Defense News

Deploying for Duty: Army Wife, Mom of 5, Heads to NYC to Fight COVID-19

April 17, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

As an Army wife, Jessica Henninger is used to her husband deploying and being away from the family. So, it was a surreal experience for the nurse who had been out of the workforce to be the one saying goodbye while her husband prepared to take care of their five kids as she left for a different kind of war — the fight against COVID-19. 

"For a military spouse who's used to the attention always being on my husband and [people saying] 'Thank your husband for his service,' for people to be saying that to me now is so weird," said the 38-year-old Henninger, who left over the weekend to help overwhelmed health care workers in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. 

A family of seven smiles for a family portrait.
Henninger Family
The Henninger family, from left: Kadin Adelt,16; Hugo Henninger, 4 months; Jessica Henninger, Ophelia Henninger, 5; Army Staff Sgt. Alex Henninger, Kailee Hadley, 14; and Stella Henninger, 1.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Alex Henninger
VIRIN: 191214-A-LJ797-727C

Henninger put her own career on hold 18 months ago to take care of the couple's kids, who are 16, 14, 5, 1 and 4 months. But before that, she spent 20 years working in health care. Ten of those were as a nurse working in intensive care and with patients on ventilators in respiratory units. 

So, she's perfectly cut out for the battle against COVID-19, and, once the crisis started ramping up, she knew she had to do something.

"There was this drive, I guess, just hearing all of the stories about how bogged down the nurses were and the atrocious nurse-patient ratios," Henninger said. "I thought, 'I have these skills, and they're not being used.' I can be helpful. I can't … just sit here on these skills doing nothing.'"

A woman hugs her 1-year-old child
Child's Hug
Jessica Henninger hugs her 1-year-old daughter, Stella, before leaving to help medical professionals fight COVID-19 in New York City.
Photo By: DOD Video Still
VIRIN: 200412-O-ZZ999-017C
A teenage girl shuts her eyes as she hugs her mother.
Henninger Hug
Jessica Henninger hugs her 14-year-old daughter, Kailee, before leaving to help medical professionals fight COVID-19 in New York City.
Photo By: DOD Video Still
VIRIN: 200412-O-ZZ999-353C

She found a position as a travel nurse — one who fills in at hospitals with short-term staffing needs — and was so focused on helping that she didn't contemplate having to leave her family behind.

"It wasn't until it got real — it got to me the night before I was going to leave — that all of a sudden I started realizing, 'I'm going to have to leave my baby,'" Henninger said of her 4-month-old son. "That's when it really started getting emotional for me. The morning I left, I was a mess."

Henninger's husband, Army Staff Sgt. Alex Henninger, is a broadcast specialist. During his 12-year Army career, he's been away from his family on deployments and other assignments for a fourth of that time. So, she's aware of what her family is in for.

A soldier in dress uniform kisses the head of a swaddled baby.
Newborn Kiss
Army Staff Sgt. Alex Henninger kisses the head of his newborn son, Hugo.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 200203-D-DB155-002C

"I knew it was going to be difficult for them, me being gone, but for me, it was just — we're nurses, and it's what we do," Henninger said.

Her husband understood.

"I was immediately on board with Jess's decision," Staff Sergeant Henninger said. "Her going to New York to do this is the same as me deploying to film in a combat zone. Both scenarios put us in the crucible of our training and experience. It's what we've prepared for our entire careers. I couldn't be more proud."

A mother opens a suitcase on a table beside a baby in a baby seat.
Packing With Hugo
Jessica Henninger begins packing for her eight-week trip to help medical professionals battle COVID-19 in New York City as her 4-month-old boy, Hugo, watches her.
Photo By: DOD video still
VIRIN: 200411-O-ZZ999-446A

By April 13, Jessica was in Manhattan at an orientation, getting up to speed on what's going on at the hospital where she'll be working for the next eight weeks.

"Essentially, they're using the hospital that I'm at as an overflow for [COVID-19] patients as they start to stabilize and get a little less acute," she said. "They're not as critical, at this point, as they were when they first got sick."

She said her role will be a bit different from that of the average travel nurse, considering that the workers at the hospital — which she's been told not to name — don't usually work with patients suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.

"Normally, as a traveler, you go in and you're the new guy on the block, and you're looking to the more established staff to be, like, 'OK, you're my resource here,'" said. "But the [hospital] staff members will more than likely be looking to us, since we've done all of these types of things before."

A woman in blue scrubs takes a selfie.
Henninger Selfie
Jessica Henninger takes a selfie in her scrubs while in New York City to help medical professionals fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Jessica Henninger
VIRIN: 200414-O-ZZ999-861

She doesn't yet know if she'll have a set schedule for her time in New York. What she has been prepared for, though, is the need to stay flexible.

"They say that they're getting updates every single day as to what the changes are and how we're proceeding with things, so everything is just a really fluid situation, and we just have to be ready for anything," Henninger said.

At first, she said she was a little nervous because she hadn't practiced in a while, but after that first day, she felt much more prepared.

"Going through the orientation process has reinforced for me that, even though this is really an extraordinary time where we don't know what to expect, … all of the things that I know how to do and that are just a part of who I am as a nurse, none of that stuff has gone away," Henninger said.

A smiling woman sits in a chair with a baby on her lap.
Jessica Henninger
Jessica Henninger, a registered nurse, Army wife and mother of five, sits for an interview while holding her 4-month-old son, Hugo.
Photo By: DOD Video Still
VIRIN: 200412-O-ZZ999-624C

She's finding comfort, too, in the fact that when it comes to this virus, everyone is the new kid on the block. "We're all in this together, learning new things and doing new things together," Henninger said.