The ambulance comes to a stop. The doors fly open and I rush out wearing my protective suit. Thermometer in hand, I reach the patient. “How do you feel? Do you have a fever? Is it difficult to breathe?” I fire questions in rapid succession, not giving her time to absorb my appearance in the giant white suit and face mask. “When did this start? Have you been out of the country? Have you been near anyone sick?” I continue my assault. Finally, I slow down, take my first breath, and see the frightened human before me. I stop, regroup, and try to find the answer to my patient’s cry for help.
I am on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wait, yes and no. Yes, I am on the front lines, but in the backwater of the nation. No, I am not like my brothers and sisters in the large metropolitan areas where everywhere they turn, they face people who are scared and dying. I am fighting the battle in a rural coastal area with few actual cases and hundreds of frightened people.
I get up each morning and kiss my wife goodbye, not knowing if it could be for the last time, if I should walk into a land mine of virus exposure and not be able to return to our home. I drive to work, stopping to get coffee from behind a protective screen. I watch the coffee shop person closely to see that she is practicing safe preparation of my drink, careful not to touch any surface without the protection of gloves on my hands.
I arrive at the station; it is quiet now. I stop and take my temperature before proceeding. I check in, chat with members of the outgoing shift, and await the rest of my crew. They arrive, follow the same ritual, and we joke about our enemy, COVID-19. They are, for the most part, half my age; they could all be my children. I think of my own, both grown men now, and hope they will stay safe this day and in the future.
For the next 12 hours I am keyed up, anxious but calm. I am well trained; I am very well equipped. I am well supported by others, be it on the ambulance service, at the hospitals, or in the community. I am afraid, but not debilitated.
I was given an option; I could have retired. I could have stepped away, but that is not who I am. I have heard it said: “If not me, then who?” I am reminded of all the old war movies I have enjoyed where the characters were about to jump out of a plane, go over the top, or rush onto the beach under fire, and I think about how they may have felt. I do not face the dire threats they faced, but rather a prolonged fear of not knowing whether I have been exposed to the invisible enemy and, if I have, how it will affect me.
Many have said: “It is just the flu; it only affects the old and infirm.” Well, I am old, and I do have risk factors. The truth is, we just do not know enough to be comfortable.
We settle in, do our equipment checks, complain about this and that, and then we eat. We hope we can get through the meal before the tones drop. Some days we are out the door before we even have a chance to check in. But for the most part, we wait. That is a killer, the not knowing when or if we will be called on to face the beast.
In the meantime, we go about our lives as best we can. We try to adjust with living in these strange times. No restaurants, no movies, lines at the grocery store. Nothing but eat, sleep, work, repeat.
We must continue to respond to the everyday emergencies. People still get sick despite the virus. They still have strokes, heart attacks, and get injured. However, the virus has added steps to our response. We wait to hear dispatch give us the code that lets us know if the patient could have COVID-19.
This is a huge responsibility on the dispatcher. He or she must assess the situation on just a phone call from people who are sometimes sick, confused, and scared, and who are often alone. Dispatchers hold the patient’s and even our lives in their hands. They are truly heroes.
The day wears on. We find ourselves wishing for a call, just not a virus call. We are out the door in less than two minutes. We look for the address, recording time and distance, mentally going over what we will do based on the information we received.
The call proceeds. The patient is seen to and, if necessary, transported to one of our hospitals, where we hand care off to the very capable hands of the emergency room staff.
We rarely “rescue” anyone; most of the time we assess their complaint till we can get them to resources that will help them. It is not like on TV, where the medic gives someone a shot and five minutes later, they are cured. Yes, we can give pain medications, oxygen, and other medications, but most of the time we manage.
As the day winds down, I find myself looking at the clock, hoping there will be no late call. I look for the relief crew to report. We retrace our entrance, change out of the blue uniform, and become mere humans again, take our temp and out we go.
People are strange animals. When they recognize me in public, many thank me, some avoid me. I do not take it personally, but I find it strange, this love-hate dynamic. I feel guilty when people thank me or call me a hero. I am just doing my job. I am probably safer on a call than the public is in a store. People say “Oh, you must be so busy.” The truth is we are not, no more than usual. That does not mean it will not happen, but my hope is it will not. If it does, we are ready.
If we all hang on, be patient, follow the plan set before us, and let this event run its course, we can enjoy our lives again in a few months. Hopefully sooner rather than later. Until that time comes, I will still report for duty and do battle, behind the mask with a thermometer in my gloved hand.
(Nathan Powell, 66, of New Harbor, works as a full-time paramedic for the Boothbay Region Ambulance Service. A former building contractor, he has worked in emergency medical services for 19 years.)