Growing up in New York City, Scott Farber, MD, loved hearing his grandfather’s gripping World War II naval stories, especially the ones about being torpedoed — twice — in the Pacific.

“The compartment he was in was left unscathed while the one right next door was blown apart by a Japanese torpedo,” said Dr. Farber, an assistant professor/clinical in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Long School of Medicine. “His stories seemed so crazy they didn’t seem true.”

Scott Farber, MD, an assistant professor/clinical in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Long School of Medicine.
Scott Farber, MD, an assistant professor/clinical in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Long School of Medicine.

Those stories inspired him to join the United States Navy Reserve as a medical officer six years ago during his residency at Washington University in St. Louis.

He was prepared for combat abroad, but instead deployed to New York City in March to save lives — not in a combat zone overseas, but at home — as part of a mission to help New York City’s overwhelmed health care system in its fight against a new enemy, COVID-19.

“I come from a Navy family and always wanted to serve,” said Dr. Farber, who has called Military City, U.S.A., home for the past two years. “When the call came out to come help my hometown of New York City through the military, of course I couldn’t pass it up.”

The call came in on a Saturday morning. He was on a plane to New York less than 24 hours later.

The worst days of the pandemic were looming. According to reports, few places in the country were suffering as much as New York City. It had emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak, and the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, USNS Comfort, was on its way to help.

“The ship was supposed to be a hospital that would take care of emergency or surgical patients that didn’t have COVID-19,” he said. “That was the idea until COVID-19 positive patients began getting on the ship. Then the mission changed completely.”

Dr. Farber was then one of hundreds of sailors, soldiers and airmen sent to work primarily at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. The military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had transformed the space into a hospital for coronavirus patients.

“But the Javits Center didn’t really have that many patients,” he said. “They quickly changed the mission for our Navy unit. I was one of about 150 Navy doctors and nurses in our unit, Navy Medicine Support Team 1, from around the country.”

The Navy doctors and nurses were then split into teams and sent to staff intensive care units at some of the hardest hit hospitals in the city, in many cases ground zero for coronavirus infections, he said. Dr. Farber’s team of 12 Navy surgeons was sent to Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, arguably one of the worst hit hospitals in the country.

“We had a couple of days of orientation at the hospital and then we were basically thrown into the fire,” he said. “Their doctors were exhausted, or they were out sick. We were there to help them.”

Masked and clad in full-body suits, Dr. Farber and his team answered the call to duty working 12-hour days, seven days a week directly treating patients with COVID-19 for two months.

“We staffed our own Navy ICU by working hard and long days,” he said. “The patients were all critically ill. They were some of the sickest patients I have ever seen.”

It was quite a change from Dr. Farber’s normal routine. Under normal circumstances, he’s a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with a specialty in facial reconstruction at University Hospital and the Methodist Hospital System.

“Through our Navy team, I had the help and the resources that I needed to take care of these patients, and I had my old ICU textbooks with me to refresh,” he said. “But certainly, it was a complete 180 from my normal practice.”

In many ways, he said: “Taking care of critically ill patients was like riding a bike. I spent a lot of time in the ICU as a resident not too long ago.”

The pandemic required doctors like Dr. Farber to change the way they work in order to help treat the number of people who were severely ill with the virus.

“I do a lot of reconstructive surgery — cancer reconstruction or trauma reconstruction. That’s what I wanted to contribute to the military, especially reconstruction of wartime facial trauma,” he said. “That was the reason for joining the military.”

Instead, he was asked to help on the home front. It was his first deployment, a most unusual experience he won’t soon forget.

“When I signed up for the Navy, I signed up knowing there was a chance to be deployed. I knew all the consequences and I was OK with that,” he said. “But I never would’ve guessed that we would all be in this situation and that instead of doing reconstructive surgery, I’d be an ICU doctor taking care of septic COVID-19 patients.”

Dr. Farber is now back in San Antonio after spending two weeks in Portsmouth, Virginia, in quarantine.

“It was stressful taking care of those patients,” he said. “We had a lot of deaths, and it certainly took a toll on us. But the hospital was very supportive and thankful that we were there.”

Byron Hepburn, MD, director of the Military Health Institute at UT Health San Antonio, said Dr. Farber is a true hero and an example of the very best the military and institution has to offer.

“We are very proud of Dr. Farber and his willingness to serve a cause larger than himself in a time of extraordinary need,” said Dr. Hepburn. “He lives the core values we hold dear at UT Health San Antonio and is a role model for us all.”