NYC paramedic haunted by COVID-19 toll: ‘You hear the cries’
NEW YORK — Elizabeth Bonilla pulled her ambulance up to a set of Bronx row houses. Another ambulance and a fire truck were already there, their flashing lights painting the dark streets an eerie shade of orange. Neighbors gathered on their stoops to watch. Some were sipping wine.
“We gotta gown up,” she said as she climbed out of the vehicle. This call was a suspected COVID-19 case, which meant she needed gloves, masks, and a full-body, plastic smock.
An empty gurney waited by the front steps while four EMS workers, Bonilla included, rushed upstairs.
About 45 minutes later, three medics emerged. Bonilla, a 43-year-old Fire Department paramedic, followed five minutes after that. She walked slowly, an oxygen tank in the bag on her back.
“This one is hard,” she said. “Real hard.”
The coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 8,900 people in New York City, plus as many as 3,900 more whose deaths were never confirmed by a lab test.
At its peak, emergency calls nearly doubled from their usual average. Call volume has dropped in recent days in a sign that the crisis could be easing. Still, the FDNY’s 4,000 emergency medical workers are straining to keep up.
“I don’t think that anyone was prepared for this,” Bonilla said.
To get a sense of the challenges paramedics like Bonilla face, The Associated Press followed her through the first half of her 16-hour double shift Wednesday.
Bonilla arrived early for her 3 p.m. start time, but the crew using her ambulance was running late. A call at the end of their shift had kept them out longer than scheduled — a standard occurrence in recent weeks.
When the vehicle finally arrived, Bonilla pulls it around to the front of FDNY EMS Station 3, located in the South Bronx’s Castle Hill neighborhood.
She loaded her personal supplies in through the driver’s side door. She stashed a clear plastic bag filled with sanitizing supplies and hangs up her pink stethoscope.
Her thermos, holding a home-brewed ginger-lemon tea, got dropped into a cup holder. The hot beverage — along with regular prayer — helped keep her calm.
She pulled wipes from the plastic bag and begins to disinfect. She rubbed down her seat, the steering wheel and the rest of the drivers’ station, then moved onto the passenger side. She finished by sterilizing the treatment area in the back.
Bonilla’s neon-pink tools made her easy to spot — pink scissors, pink keys, pink tape on her walkie talkie and hand sanitizer.
She also has three bright braids each dedicated to a cancer-stricken family member. A green and orange one for her mother, who has leukemia and skin cancer, a blue one for her father, who has prostate cancer, and a pink one for her aunt with breast cancer.
“Hair is life,” she said. “And when you’re a cancer patient you lose your hair, and for a mental thing, it kind of makes me feel like I have them with me.”
She hasn’t seen her mother or father in two months — she can’t because of her exposure to the virus and their high-risk status. She’s been trying to help manage their lives remotely with her sparse downtime.
“I’m a single parent,” the mother of sons aged 22 and 16 said. “I’m handling things at home, and I’m being a parent to my parents, and then I’m coming into work and I’m taking care of people, and then I do it all over again every day. I think taking care of others is my calling. It has to be.”
Nearly two hours into their shift, Bonilla and her partner have yet to be pinged by dispatchers — an unthinkable lull as recently as a week ago.
They had been making between 5-7 calls each shift and often working two shifts per day, doing their best to aid patients even as they ran low on N95 facemasks and oxygen tanks.
Social distancing measures have slowed the virus’ spread, and that’s eased the demand for paramedics’ services. Bonilla is certain the calm will be short-lived, fearing another surge in COVID-19 cases when New Yorkers begin returning to work.
“It’s the eye of the storm,” she said.
The first call finally came around 4:50, and five minutes later, Bonilla parked the ambulance in front of an apartment building. She jumped out of the truck, put on gloves and a mask, grabbed the necessary equipment and rushed in. Minutes later, she emerged wheeling a patient who was alert but hooked up to a breathing aid.
They pulled into a nearby emergency room 30 minutes later and passed off the patient to doctors and nurses waiting in full protective gear – gloves, face shields, and floor-length gowns. Bonilla brought the empty gurney back to the ambulance, sprayed it with disinfectant and loaded back up.
A backlog of ambulances has built in the ER bay while Bonilla’s unit finishes paperwork, and when they got their next call, they realized they’ve been completely blocked in. Dispatchers eventually gave the call to another EMS team.
A few minutes later they were back on the road, rushing to a different scene.
They arrived at a house and find a family in disarray. A shouting match broke out on the front porch, a disagreement between family members over whether the patient should risk virus exposure by going to the hospital.
Bonilla called for police assistance and two officers cordon off an angry, middle-aged man while Bonilla evaluates his step-son in the ambulance.
Twenty minutes later, Bonilla’s vehicle took off with the patient still in the back. The step-father alternated crying and shouting as they pulled away.
After delivering the patient to the hospital, Bonilla and her partner returned to the station for a snack. She rushed out of the building moments later, a box of donuts and a half-finished coffee in hand, and said they’ve received an urgent call that took her a short distance to the row house, just down the street from the Whitestone Bridge, which connects the Bronx and Queens.
Bonilla loaded the oxygen tank and an empty gurney back onto her ambulance.
She walked around the rig, out of sight from the neighbors. She pulled down her face mask, reached for a paper towel, and wiped tears from her eyes.
“You can’t do nothing,” she said.
Slowly, she removed her gown, gloves, and mask. She walked back around to the driver’s door, grabbed a Lysol bottle in her plastic bag and doused herself head to toe.
A family member emerged from the house, a young man about the same age as Bonilla’s oldest. He sat on the stoop, hands on his face, and sobs.
Bonilla took a sip from her thermos and kept her gaze straight ahead.
Bonilla has been sleeping with the lights on and playing gospel music through the night. Anything to shake the replays from her head from calls like the last one.
“You hear the cries,” she said. “You just hear and you see everything all over again.”
She was back at the station now, getting a brief break. She was set to punch back in at 11 and start another 8-hour run, covering an overnight shift for a co-worker who needed the night off to rest and tend to family.
“I’m just drained right now,” she said. “I’m emotionally drained and physically drained and definitely mentally drained.”
She changed the subject to prayer, explained how her faith keeps her going. Her family, too.
And then there were the pandemic victims, new ones every day, that she knows are relying on her expertise and support.
“The moment we walk through the door, the families, it’s almost like they’ve seen God,” Bonilla said. “They are looking for help immediately. They have this sense of relief, and then they go ahead and pass all responsibility on you.”
“You want to make sure you’re strong for them.”
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