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After serving more than 20 years as a paramedic at Englewood Health in New Jersey, I am hanging up my uniform and gear…but not the way you may think. Although I’ve worked there for more than two decades, I’ve never found the need to have a locker in the crew locker room. Before each shift, I’d arrive wearing a nondescript sweatshirt or jacket over my uniform, ready to get to work the moment I walked in the door.
Like so many things in our lives, though, COVID-19 has changed that routine.
Now I get to work 30–40 minutes early to go through a whole new ritual. I go directly to the crew room, change out of my civilian clothes, gather my gear, and get ready for work. After my shift I take my uniform off, put it in a sealed bag, shower, and put civilian clothes on before heading home. I know many of you have done this for years, but this was a change for me.
After all these years I now need a place to keep my toiletries and towels (as well as my turnout coat and helmet), as well as a new addition: my respirator. No doubt many of you have altered your routines to an even greater extent than I have. We’ve heard so much about “the new normal.” Like the virus itself, no one is immune to that either.
But I don’t want to restate the challenges in this piece. Let’s turn to the positives. My colleagues and I have become even more engaged in each other’s well-being. We “buddy check” each other on every call prior to patient contact, making sure our PPE is donned correctly.
We’ve confided in each other more than in the past, having experienced so many serious calls in such a short time. We have checked in on each other routinely to make sure we are taking care of ourselves—something at which we are rarely proficient. We’ve eaten more (but maybe not better) than before due to the benevolence of our friends and neighbors who continue to feed us day and night.
We have seen teams of EMTs and paramedics from far and wide come to our rescue. Through our national ambulance contract, we have shared our quarters with EMS professionals from North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, and many other states throughout this great nation who came to supplement our response capabilities. We are grateful to them for coming, and I want to personally thank them for their response. They drove from near and far (mostly far) to help us make sure there was someone to dispatch on every call, no matter how quickly the calls kept coming, a few weeks ago. This past week we sent them off with a sight and sound parade as a small token of our appreciation as they drove off into the sunset, returning to their home states and cities.
The call volume has dropped here, but more thankfully the call type has dropped—it’s no longer 90% “pandemic response” calls, or, as one of our dispatchers decided to code them, “Charlie 19s.” These calls have not gone away, but we are also back to responding to chest pains, diabetics, overdoses, and car accidents. Not that I wish any of these on anyone, but at least these people are now calling and getting care.
Of course, we are not there yet. As I noted recently in a social media post, our refusal numbers (patients who RMA) are still very high. We must continue to communicate with the general public about the safety of our ambulances and emergency departments. We must reassure patients and give them the confidence they need to call and seek treatment when they need it.
In my utopian head, the “frequent flyer” patients who called incessantly pre-pandemic (for no good reason) will continue not to call—but those patients who feared calling 9-1-1 peri-pandemic, lest they contract the virus while under our care, will now begin to call once again.
Joshua D. Hartman, MBA, NRP, is senior vice president of the Cardiovascular and Public Safety divisions at HMP, the parent company of EMS World. He is an active paramedic in New York City and New Jersey.