“A lot of people are running away from this and we’re running towards it,” FDNY EMS paramedic Sherry Singleton told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
In a single shift last week, 33-year-old Singleton responded to four such cases in Brooklyn. She arrives at each scene not so much fearful as intensely alert.
“It’s more like a heightened sense of awareness about what you’re doing, what you’re touching, even what you’re saying,” she reports. “You have to have a mix of compassion. You also have to be very strategic, very delicate in terms of getting the information and checking their vital signs, making sure not to expose them to you.”
She is well aware of the shortage of masks.
“I shudder to think what will occur if we run out.”
When a person’s symptoms are severe enough to require hospitalization, Singleton or her partner ride with the person in the back of the ambulance, an intimacy that does not allow social distancing. One person told them that she had been in the company of four people who had tested positive.
At the start of the outbreak, Singleton and the paramedics would call ahead to alert the hospital that they were headed their way with a suspected case of COVID-19. No longer.
“Now we’re just letting them know when we get there because the notification phone lines are ringing off the hook,” she said.
Upon arriving at the hospital, paramedics with a suspected COVID-19 case have to wait as long as an hour and a half as the overworked staff goes through that particular hospital’s often changing procedure for accepting such cases.
“You’re in the emergency room until the patient is fully transferred over to the nurses and the doctors,” Singleton said.
The paramedics then return to their base to decontaminate their equipment. They also need to get new personal protective gear.
Singleton says that no more than three weeks ago, they had several sets of the gear in each ambulance. No longer.
“You use one, you get one back,” Singleton said. “A one for one.”
One is uncomfortably close to none when there is constant talk of shortages.
“All of this just adds to the anxiety of what’s to come,” she said.
After each suspected COVID-19 encounter, the paramedics have to fill out an exposure report. Singleton had to fill out only one last year, involving cement dust at a construction site for a few minutes. The present reports concern a pathogen for two hours or more.
As many as three hours elapse between the time they respond to a call and are prepared to head back out.
“That’s for just one patient,” Singleton said.
They use a standard radio code to announce they are ready for another call.
“Ninety-eight and available,” Singleton said.
The next call is never long in coming, and they keep going from the next to the next and the next. Singleton is often so focused she loses track of time.
“You look up and you started at 3 p.m. and it’s already 10 p.m.,” she said.
The paramedics often work multiple double shifts in a week, as Singleton did on Saturday and again on Sunday.
“Do 12, 14, 16 hours, come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow,” Singleton said.
And the paramedics know they are vulnerable to the virus even in the station house. They need only think of fellow FDNY Paramedic Christell Cadet, who worked inside a Bronx station house and had not been out on calls for several weeks when she suddenly fell ill on March 17. Cadet is a close friend of Singleton’s and exchanged texts with her from her hospital bed on Saturday.
“She basically was saying she felt like she was still battling the same symptoms,” Singleton recalls. “She didn’t feel like she was improving.”
Worry for her friend joined Singleton’s other concerns as she resumed her double shift and proceeded to work another on Sunday. She learned from the news that losing one’s sense of smell or taste may be an early symptom of COVID-19.
“We’re actively battling something we’re learning about day to day with everybody else,” she said.
Even paramedics who felt sure they had been exposed kept on, as instructed by the city health department, which decreed, “If you are a health care worker who has had a known high-risk exposure to a patient(s) with confirmed Covid-19, you should take extra care to monitor your health but can keep working. There is no requirement for 14 day quarantine of healthcare workers with high-risk exposures in the setting of sustained community transmission as we have in New York City.”
Singleton says she and her comrades are keenly aware that they are as liable as anybody else to fall victim to the virus.
“People are forgetting that we’re still humans,” she said. “Just because we have the fire department uniform doesn’t mean we have a better immune system.”
A number of paramedics had fallen too ill to continue.
“Some of us are showing enough symptoms that it’s keeping them from being able to work,” Singleton said. “So we’re losing people. That means more shifts.”
That also means too little sleep and fewer opportunities to sit down to a healthy meal. Some paramedics bring in easily gobbled meals. But others have to eat the fastest of fast food.
“Grab and go,” Singleton said. “No different than how a college kid eats.”
She noted, “Health is cumulative. All these things play a part.”
The paramedics are instructed to take their temperature twice a day, which between runs is best done during the wait in an emergency room. But even that brings worries about the shortage of medical supplies.
“That’s a pair of gloves and a thermometer sheath two times a day for one person,” Singleton said.
When the paramedics are able to head home, they often isolate themselves, so as not to infect loved ones.
“We’re working and going home and being alone,” she said. “You try to get as much sleep as you can. You try to eat as best you can.”
Then it is time to head back to work, relying on hope while practicing science at the ground level.
“It’s blind faith,” Singleton said. “It’s faith in something that’s not based in science.”
She and the others continue doing their sworn duty.
“We took that oath seriously when we first took it,” she said. “We’re doing our best. We’re at the front lines. And our job is dangerous.”
And through it all, they are as intensely aware as soldiers in a battlefield that fate can turn on the smallest things, while on a call, or waiting at a hospital, or back at the station house, or at home.
“We’re aware about everything we’re doing,” Singleton said. “Something as simple as whether we lean against a wall.”
She added, “Life is changed and we will know where we are when it’s done. We’re going to keep fighting the good fight until we can’t anymore.”
A reminder of the danger they face came just after midnight on Tuesday, when Singleton received a call informing her that Cadet had taken a turn for the worse and was on a ventilator in intensive care.
“I don’t even know the word to use for it,” Singleton said. “Shocking. Astonishing.”
Here was wrenching proof that the virus does not threaten only the elderly and those with serious medical conditions. Cadet does have asthma, but it has been under control. And she is just 34 years old.
“It’s also the younger folks,” Singleton said. “[Cadet] was very vibrant, healthy, active.”
Cadet has been among the most spirited, helpful, and open-hearted of paramedics. She has also been vocal about FDNY EMS paramedics receiving pay comparable to that of firefighters. She now was fighting for her life in a battle that proves the work of paramedics can involve as much danger and require as much courage as that of other first responders.
Singleton started a GoFundMe page for her comrade and then could do nothing more than hope and pray.
Meanwhile, Singleton will be returning to the front lines.
“I am back to work 3 p.m. on Friday,” she said. “Then it all begins again.”
She said what every paramedic is saying as they keep answering those calls.
“We got you.”