New York City is at the epicenter of the Covid-19 health crisis, and as a New York City-based College that educates students committed to public service, our alumni, students, faculty, and staff are working on the front lines to keep our communities safe. Our “Front-Line Heroes” article series serves as a testament to the valiant efforts of our first responders and essential workers. As a community we thank them for their service, dedication, and personal sacrifice.
With over 30 years of experience as a paramedic, George Contreras, an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Master of Science in Emergency Management program at John Jay, knows the mental toll working on the front lines of the Covid-19 health crisis can take on EMS practitioners. “In my entire career, I’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing now with Covid-19,” says Contreras. “As paramedics and EMTs, we’re seeing so many people die day after day. With our new protocols, when we respond to an incident, after 20 minutes of CPR, if there’s been no change in the patient, we have to declare the person dead. Everything in you wants to keep working and keep fighting to bring this person back because you know that this is someone’s mom, dad, brother, sister, or grandparent, but sadly, this is our new reality, and after 20 minutes, we have to stop trying to resuscitate.”
“Everything in you wants to keep working and keep fighting to bring this person back because you know that this is someone’s mom, dad, brother, sister, or grandparent, but sadly, this is our new reality, and after 20 minutes, we have to stop trying to resuscitate.” —George Contreras
Understanding that in many cases a family may not get a chance to say goodbye to their loved one, Contreras thought fast on his feet after a man in his 70s died in his ambulance. “For weeks this man battled this disease at home. He really didn’t want to go to the hospital, but when things got really bad, his family called 911. When we got there, he was having a really hard time breathing. By the time we got him into the ambulance, he had stopped breathing. We worked on him for as long as we were allowed, and we were working as hard as we could, desperately trying to get a pulse. His family was standing in the street watching, crying, and praying that he would pull through,” recalls Contreras. “When I knew he had passed, I had to fight back my tears, leave the ambulance and tell them he was gone. They were blaming themselves for not getting him to the hospital sooner. At that moment, I just wanted to give them closure and some peace.” Knowing this was most likely the last time they’d see him, Contreras had each of the man’s family members step into ambulance one-by-one and say goodbye. “It was like a speed-dating wake. We made sure that all of his family members were able to say goodbye to him, both quickly and safely.”
“The mental toll this disease is having on EMS, firefighters, and police officers is very real. We when we take off our uniforms, we’re people just like everyone else.” —George Contreras
The impact of a Covid-19 death is palpable for the family and friends who have lost their loved ones, but for the EMS practitioners trying to help people survive this deadly disease, the cumulative effect of seeing so many deaths can take a toll. “The mental toll this disease is having on EMS, firefighters, and police officers is very real. When we take off our uniforms, we’re people just like everyone else. We’re worried about our families. We’re worried about our own underlying conditions that could affect how we react if we contract the disease—a number of front-line workers have asthma, hypertension, and diabetes,” says Contreras. “In the beginning we were sleeping in our cars and our garages to ensure that we didn’t bring the disease home to our loved ones. We know people who are dying, and we’ve said final goodbyes to our colleagues and mentors. This spring, an EMT who I’ve known for almost 30 years passed away.” These are sobering words coming from a man who’s actively participated in enormous EMS efforts including: the TWA Flight 800 plane crash, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the September 11 terrorist attacks. “EMS, firefighters, and police officers, we’re trained to be tough on the outside, hold it together and get the job done, but we’re still people. We feel things just as deeply.”
The National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) conducted a survey regarding the mental health of EMS practitioners and received nearly 2,200 responses from all 50 states. Many of the respondents provided thoughts indicating that improving EMS mental health awareness, programs, and resources was an urgent issue. Others commented that there was a stigma regarding mental health in their profession, and that many of them struggled with PTSD and depression. “Right now, a lot of EMTs and paramedics are feeling the stress of the job. During this pandemic we lost a young EMT who had just started working with the FDNY. We think that he saw so many sick patients connected to the coronavirus pandemic, that he ended up taking his own life. He was one of us, and he was in pain.”
Even as we continue to fight this terrible disease, there are moments filled with hope and joy. Contreras has always been a proud and loving uncle to all of his nieces and nephews. He sees them as often as possible and supports them in everything that they do. But when it comes to his job, he’s never been one to brag about what he does or go into too much detail. “They know what I do, but it was never a big deal to them,” says Contreras, humbly. But then one day he got a call from his niece. She said that she never really realized everything that he does for the community. And, she told him that she was proud of him and to expect something in the mail. “I thought it was just going to be a letter, but then I received all these cupcakes at work from her and all of my nieces and nephews. It was so touching because it came from my family. She even got her son to draw a little picture of me. Everyone on my team had a cupcake and it was a pretty special moment for me.”