Personal Essay: Being an essential worker in a pandemic
In the year that I’ve been an emergency medical technician (EMT) in New Castle County, I have gained a lot of clinical experience and patient interaction skills. The job of an EMT is to provide basic life support measures for a patient and safely transport them to a facility to get further, more complex treatment. We are the first ones there to help when a person is having the worst day of their life, and it is our job to get them to the hospital in one piece. For this reason, it is very different from working inside a hospital, where there is a controlled environment and a plethora of resources within reach. Our medical care is being provided in people’s living rooms, on the side of a highway or at a table in a restaurant. There is no controlled environment for an EMT; every single case is different, and that has always provided me with an adrenaline rush.
As we left the station in an ambulance, the red and blue lights illuminated a two-block radius, the sirens blared for oncoming traffic to hear us, and we raced down streets and through intersections towards the person who was in desperate need of our help. My heart immediately started racing, and the excitement of not knowing what I was going to walk into took over. I couldn’t wait to walk into a call and start helping whoever is on the other end.
Things are different now, during the pandemic. The job I used to enjoy every second of now scares me tremendously. My excitement has been replaced by anxiety, and I am finding myself hesitant to work. I wonder how I am supposed to keep other people safe if I can’t even keep myself safe.
Calls take longer to dispatch now, due to the added coronavirus screening questions asked to each caller that may cause them to be described as “positive for EIDS (Emerging Infectious Disease/Syndrome).” With this comes added worries of putting on full protective gear (think HazMat suit), asking the patient through the door if they have had any contact with anyone who is sick or if they have symptoms and being self-conscious about remembering anything that has been touched, in order to properly deep clean afterward.
Since the start of the pandemic, everything about Emergency Medical Services (EMS) has changed. Safety is always discussed in training, but on the average call, safety concerns fall to the back of our minds. Now, safety is the main concern of each call. Has the patient been exposed? What should I wear into the home? Are they telling me the truth or hiding their symptoms? Am I going to get sick? Patients call the ambulance but are horrified when we recommend they go to the hospital. Providers often spend several minutes convincing the patient that the hospital is the best option for them, even though we are uncomfortable entering it ourselves.
Once at the hospital, it is like a ghost town. With everyone scared of getting the virus, the everyday patients are not there. The calm before the storm is in full effect. Empty beds line the halls waiting to be filled during the “peak” everyone talks about. Anxious nurses talk in small groups — all are wearing masks and all feel bittersweet about the relaxation of the low patient load.
After dropping off the patient, we call the dispatchers to “put us in DECON (decontaminating).” This entails spending half an hour wiping down every surface of the ambulance to rid it of any sign of the last patient, in hopes that this will save us from getting the virus. Then we become available again and pretend nothing has changed until the next call.
As the spread of the virus has become more defined, fire stations have become very strict about DECON and Personal Protective Equipment that is used on calls. Oftentimes, following these protocols feels like a case of “the boy who cried wolf” when we suit-up based on worrisome statements from the caller, just to discover it was a false alarm. Especially in the beginning, “gearing up” ended up completely unnecessary for most calls. After several weeks of this, coworkers have slacked and disregarded the protocols put in place. Now, my coworkers scare me as much as the patients; they have all made contact with many patients, and who knows if they can be trusted to have worn the correct gear and to have cleaned in the correct way? My coworkers have become just as likely to give me the virus as my patients.
Every department is scared of getting shut down. Fire departments are filled with volunteers, part-timers and full-timers that all work at several different stations and for many different companies. One sick EMT could effectively pass the virus to multiple stations, shutting down entire regions of EMS. After every call that involves a potential coronavirus patient, we are required to fill out what feels like a million forms: One for the patient care documentation, one for the Delaware Office of EMS, one for the company we work for — all to keep track of our potential exposure(s). We are then supposed to wear a surgical mask and self-monitor for 14 days or until the patient has been confirmed negative. However, we never hear what happens with the patients — we just sit around and wait for news, good or bad. The idea of just not knowing anything is the worst part. On Wednesday of last week, my boyfriend, also a New Castle County EMT, found out that his patient tested positive for coronavirus, but he was never notified. He heard the news secondhand, through paramedics that had talked to nurses at the hospital earlier that day. His employer has yet to reach out.
Two weeks ago, 15 first responders in New Castle County were quarantined after being unknowingly exposed to coronavirus. Claymont EMS was dispatched to at least two known ambulance calls where the patient was actually coronavirus positive, but the family withheld that information from the EMTs out of fear it would negatively affect the treatment of their loved ones. A similar situation occurred at Aetna Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company in Newark, resulting in two of their members being quarantined. I think about people that work at these agencies, knowing that they are doing their job just like me. I can’t help but wonder if this has happened to me and I just don’t know yet. Or will happen in the near future, and there is nothing I can do to prevent it?
The most terrifying part of this whole pandemic is that no one knows everything. In my biology class last week, we discussed coronavirus. My professor told us that up to 20% of infected individuals could be asymptomatic and another 40% may only have mild symptoms that mimic a cold or allergies. This means that people could be unknowingly spreading the disease. It can take up to two weeks for symptoms to manifest. In the meantime, the virus could spread to countless individuals. This fear remains present in the front of my mind both day and night.
When at work, I worry that a patient or a co-worker might be spreading it to me, even though they don’t show symptoms. It is also possible that I could have it and be spreading it to the patients I transport, many of whom are elderly and have numerous pre-existing medical conditions: Many of whom might not survive if they get the virus. I am terrified of all the unknowns, and I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.
Every day, the fire station sends a new 80-page email with revised protocols revolving around what to do on coronavirus calls and “company policy.” There are so many important things to remember when dealing with the virus — it is not okay to make a mistake because even the slightest mess-up means exposure. At first, everyone had mixed reactions about the virus: Some freaked out, others were neutral, some didn’t care at all, but now there seems to be a consensus among many EMTs. There is an overwhelming amount of added pressure, and it is no longer fun to be an EMT; now it is just stressful and full of risks.
All over my social media, I see people complaining of boredom from being locked in the house. I know many people are struggling to support themselves and their families because their work is not considered “essential,” so they cannot work. They are begging to get out of the house and get back to work, but I envy them. I would give anything to sit at home with my loved ones, watch movies all day long and enjoy doing nothing. I could not spend the Easter holiday with my family, due to the possibility of infecting my younger sister, who is at a higher risk, and my elderly grandmother. I miss how things were before the outbreak. Being an “essential worker” does not make me lucky for being able to leave the house; it puts me in the danger zone and makes me scared to go to work. The truth is, it is not as great as it may seem. I cannot wait for things to go back to the way they used to be. I can’t wait to see my family, return to school and love my job again.