Coronavirus needs no introduction. If anything, it needs an outro. Large swaths of the world's population have lost their livelihoods and loved ones to it. Between quarantines, economic collapse, and death, the virus has wreaked havoc on every city, state, and country to which it has spread. No place has been spared.
Awash in a tsunami of sickness, New York City in particular has experienced especially devastating effects. The city has seen high death counts and overcrowding in hospitals that has been quite disturbing to witness. Images and videos from inside medical facilities have told stories of staggering exasperation. Doctors, nurses, and first responders have put forth a tremendous effort in aiding the public during a time of unprecedented fear and biological uncertainty.
I wanted to speak with someone who was on the 'front lines' in order to learn more about what it was like, so I sat down with an active EMT to discuss their experience during the height of the pandemic in New York City.
HB: What did you have to do to become an EMT?
EMT: For me, it was a six month training program. There are some programs that are three months and some that are six months. It was two nights a week, a couple hours per night. I took these classes, did a bunch of online homework, and had to pass several exams at the end. There's also a state test which I had to pass, and once I passed that, I was eligible to get my certificate.
HB: Do you like it?
EMT: Yes, very much.
HB: How Long are your shifts normally?
EMT: My shifts are usually 8 to 10 hours. At the peak of the pandemic it was common to be be working 12 hour shifts though.
HB: And on average, how many calls do you respond to during a shift?
EMT: 4 to 6.
HB: What was that number at the height of the pandemic?
EMT: 6 to 8. I deal with longer distance transportation of patients, so each call takes a while to complete. It was non-stop though. As soon as we were done with one call, we would start driving to the next. I have friends who work on more local calls and they were getting at least 12 to 14 a day at the height of the pandemic.
HB: Were you and your coworkers nervous at first?
EMT: Yeah. Because it was like we didn't know what was going on. We had no idea what was going on. We wanted to make sure we had all the PPE available. We wanted to have gowns and like, people were double gloving and we had the N-95 and then a surgical mask over it. We had goggles. We looked like little martian spacemen.
HB: Were there rumors or conspiracies flying around your coworkers regarding the virus?
EMT: No, no, no, no. No rumors or conspiracies. We just knew that a lot of people were getting sick. And I think when you don't have a lot of information and you have this fear, and just like being in New York where there's so much fear because there’s so many people. I mean, I think of myself generally as a pretty levelheaded person, so I wasn't really buying into it that much, but when you're surrounded by it and you get that first call and they tell you, “guys, it's a Covid patient.” You're like, oh f**k.
HB: Who or what was your source of 'truth' for information regarding the virus?
EMT: I’m an EMT, so my job is to follow protocols, right? So, whatever my company said we had to do… it's like, I’m going to follow orders, in a sense. If it harms another human being, I'll think about it, I’ll question the legitimacy of it, but if it's like you gotta wear a mask, gotta wear gloves, gowns, goggles. Then that's what I'm going to do. That's my job.
When it came to my personal opinion, I didn't want to be the one who was saying “let's shut down everything.” Obviously we have to try and protect everybody, but I just didn't think total social isolation was the answer. I also didn't think that everybody going about as normal was the answer either. Generally, I like to find that middle balance. So I tried to incorporate views from people on the left and people on the right. I hate that this is even a political issue, but I heard people who were more isolationist and people who were more for opening up the country, and I tried to listen to both sides in terms of information.
I think the most balanced perspective on it was Dr. David Katz. He went on Bill Maher. That's when I first heard of him. He's this epidemiologist, but he was also practicing during Covid, like he went into Bronx emergency rooms, and he was actually on the ground helping out. I liked his take on things, which felt closer to being a mix of isolating the most at risk people, but also trying to open up as much of the country that could be opened safely.
HB: Did you ever consider not going into work out of fear of catching the virus?
EMT: No, not really. I had a sore throat right as things were heating up, which was worrisome. I wasn’t displaying any other symptoms though, so I was not given a test when I went to my local clinic.
HB: What information was floating around the medical community at first in regards to the dangers of the virus and what precautions should be taken?
EMT: We all just washed our hands nonstop after every encounter. Cross contamination was a huge issue. To avoid cross contamination I would make sure that if I touch something with a glove, I don't touch something else with that same glove. Like, I'm not going to touch the patient that's suspected to have Covid and then touch the iPad that I take down all my notes on and then drive my car with the same glove on the whole time.
One of my biggest pet peeves was seeing people walk around in public with gloves on touching their phones and then touching their faces, just totally missing the point.
HB: Do you believe the precautions ended up having real positive effects?
EMT: I have my opinions, but I just don't know. I'm not a statistician. I don't know what the statistics are. I think it must have done something beneficial though, yes.
HB: What did the process of handling a suspected Covid case look like for you from start to finish?
EMT: It's just a normal call with a lot more gowns, gloves, and goggles. We would get the call, show up to where the patient was, assess the patient, and then take their vitals. If it was determined that they should come with us, we would get them into the ambulance, drive to the hospital, and then hand them off to the E.R. staff.
HB: What was the most disturbing thing you saw or experienced at work throughout the course of the pandemic?
EMT: So there was all this talk about how the hospitals in Queens were the worst. That was exactly what we saw. It really did feel like a war zone at times, like a war-torn Third World country.
There was a moment where I was standing in the middle of an E.R. and almost all the space had beds with people in them in terrible condition, just like really moaning. They weren’t all old either. There were very young people there, too. And I asked myself, what is happening? All of these people are this sick, what is going on? It just felt so surreal in that moment.
There's something I hate to say, but there's something you feel. Kind of like a rush when it's happening. It’s like, this is what you sign up for. I know it was very mentally tough for a lot of doctors, but at the same time, I know that a lot of these doctors and these medical staff and EMTs just felt driven. It felt like you were being called to action. When there's a real purpose for you and for what you're doing. You're excited about it. Not like happy about it, but there's a momentum to it. And I know I felt that. I know some of my friends felt that. And on top of that, everybody was joining together, all of New York, all of America, the whole world essentially was banding together. And every night at 7:00 p.m., you were celebrated. There was something pretty sweet about it. Having this big challenge in front of you and having essentially the whole world behind you, supporting you.
HB: At any point were you forced to decide to help one person and not another because there was a lack of human/medical resources?
EMT: No, I never had to.
HB: If we see a second wave of the virus, how do you think the medical community will act differently compared to the initial outbreak?
EMT: I think as a whole, not just the medical community, we're all a little bit more prepared for what it’s like and how to isolate ourselves. I think we also have a better understanding of the most at risk groups, and I think the best way is that we find a way to isolate those people who are most at risk. It’s tough though.
HB: What was your favorite benefit you received for being a first responder?
EMT: Lots of free food and lots of free e-scooter rides.
HB: What have you taken away from this experience?
EMT: It gave me an understanding of how tough it is to be a scientist, somebody who's doing the medical research. I think that was the biggest thing I took away.
And to take care of yourself. That's on all of us. That's something the news didn't cover at all. It's like, what are we doing to boost our immune systems so that we’re not just waiting for a vaccine to show up? I learned to focus more on these questions and ask myself how can I take care of myself better in general.
Read other great interviews in the 'Questions With' series
- Harry W. Brodsky
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