The Calm Before the Storm: Life as a flight paramedic in the COVID-19 era

It started way back in January when I started noticing the people at my base getting sick; hacking up a lung, going home with fevers and just generally being uncharacteristically miserable. Then the patients seemed to be getting sicker, which isn’t all that unusual as a flight medic – most of our patients are sick and we all have our patterns of weeks where everyone is sick, so I didn’t think much of it. But slowly I started seeing news stories out of China with headlines like “New Virus Out of Wuhan.”

Quickly the pandemonium started – the news whipping people into a frenzy but still not a lot of scientific fact as to what we were actually dealing with. Most of us in my profession saw it as another stunt, the next thing in a long list of hysterical news cycles pushing one agenda or another.  In fact, I can’t remember one serious conversation about COVID in those first weeks. Life went on as usual. The emails started as the hospital was posturing to make a response but within a week or two, we had all become weary of the email threads, like a beeping monitor in an ICU. Is it real? Hmmm, maybe…

It took a long time before it was real to me. After 17 years in EMS, I’ve seen a lot, and nothing really concerns or scares me. In general I don’t get overly upset, happy, sad, or otherwise emotional. It took about 4 or 5 weeks, right about the time we were being required to take our temperature and wear a mask during working hours and the quarantine was in full effect before I even saw my first known COVID positive patient.

My program covers about a quarter of the state of Pennsylvania which serves diverse patients. My base in Central PA was only hearing rumors of COVID patients starting in the northeast section of PA just outside of New York City. New policies continued to roll down, addressing everything from defining symptoms of COVID to ventilator strategies to proper PPE and disinfectant techniques.  It quickly became overwhelming while at the same time extremely quiet. I guess the unintended consequence of a global pandemic was people stop going to the hospital unless they absolutely need it.

I set a new personal record for shifts without a call, eight shifts and not a blade turned (I actually crushed my record by days). We had to begin starting the aircraft every couple of days just to charge the batteries. It was right about this time that the surge was predicted and then passed with little change for us here in central PA.

Then came the news of Philadelphia hospitals laying off thousands of health care workers and the emails of the vast amount of money our own health care system was losing. Finally we got the word some of our bases were going to start rolling nighttime blackouts – periods where the base was shut down to simply save money due to the extremely low call volume.

As things started looking the bleakest it finally happened.  We got busy. Busy with COVID and busy with everything else!  Stay tuned for next week when the real surge happened.

About the Author: Tristan has been involved with emergency services for 17 years, now serving as a volunteer and career fire fighter, as a fire fighter/ paramedic, and as a critical care flight paramedic. He has worked for different fire and EMS departments in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as the Maryland State Police, and the Children’s hospital of Philadelphia. He currently serves as a flight paramedic in the central and northeast areas of Pennsylvania. He also is still a part-time fire fighter/ paramedic and AHA faculty member for Code One Training Solutions. 

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