NEW BRITAIN â€“ It is four oâ€™clock in the morning and Magdalena Ratajczak, a New Britain Emergency Medical Services worker, is gulping down coffee and rushing out the door so she can get to work to prepare for the day.
â€śI want to get an early start for my coworkers because you just donâ€™t know what youâ€™re going to get every day,â€ť she said.
As an emergency medical technician, each 12-hour shift is already stressful, unpredictable, and intense. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the all-around pressure intensifies as calls come in for all kinds of medical emergencies, including COVID-19 cases. New Britain EMS is a nonprofit agency that is responsible for the provision of 911 emergency medical services within the city, which covers 13-square miles. They receive an average of 14,000 calls every year.
Between mid-April and the beginning to May, Ratajczak, 39, said they received high volumes of cases related to COVID-19. Most of the patients were senior citizens from nursing homes, but one never knew if they were ill due to the virus or not.
â€śEverything is just super stressful because you just know that they have certain symptoms, they are high risk, and they need medical attention fast,â€ť she said. â€śSometimes itâ€™s just a grab and go situation, thereâ€™s no time to think about it.â€ť
In terms of the nature of their job, Ratajczak said it didnâ€™t change because of the pandemic. What did change was their need to put on personal protection equipment before they can head out, which takes up to about a minute to a minute and a half on their response time.
â€śWe care for our patients, but no matter what, everyoneâ€™s safety comes first. Before we can care for our patients, we have to make sure that weâ€™re safe as well,â€ť said Ratajczak, who is a mother of two young children and her husband is also a first responder. When the outbreak first happened, Ratajczak had a hard time sleeping and was worried constantly that she would bring the virus back to her family.
â€śI have a backpack in my car filled with supplies just in case I canâ€™t go home,â€ť she said. â€śWe basically have no lives right now because both my husband and I take care of the kids when weâ€™re off our shifts. There is no childcare, so we have to do everything ourselves. To be honest, itâ€™s been horrible and everything has been turned upside down. Iâ€™m just glad I have a great support system at work and we can rely on each other.â€ť
Maria DeSimone, 24, is a paramedic and Ratajczakâ€™s partner. She starts her shift in a similar fashion and said they have become more efficient when it comes to cleaning, sanitizing, and putting on protective gear.
Nothing fits into a box on what any given situation may look like, said DeSimone. â€śWe have to maintain a very high level of awareness for everyone we encounter. Whether itâ€™s serious or minor, whether we know itâ€™s COVID-19 related or not, we meet them with the same level of suspicion.â€ť
Fortunately and unfortunately because EMS workers are always put into stressful situations, DeSimone said once they had a better grasp of how the pandemic is affecting people, then it was all about focusing on what they already do every day.
â€śWhen I put it into the perspective that weâ€™re always surrounded by sick people anyway, it takes some of the stress out of it,â€ť she said. â€śIt doesnâ€™t make things less real, but it lessens the stress and allows us to continue to do our jobs, which is to help as many people as we can.â€ť
There is no argument that the pandemic has added a different level of tension and anxiety to an already highly stressful environment. But what has really helped DeSimone, Ratajczak, and their colleagues is by being there for each other and keeping their routines as normal as possible. â€śThe great thing about people who work in EMS is weâ€™re highly adaptable and used to the stress, so it helps us overcome a lot of things,â€ť said DeSimone.
EMS workers push their mental and physical boundaries every day in matters of life and death, which can be very traumatic, said Patrick Ciardullo, captain of professional standards and training for New Britain EMS. â€śWe make clinical decisions and provide skills that only doctors usually perform. The number of macabre things we see are often experiences we canâ€™t just share with anyone,â€ť he said.
From a mental health perspective, EMS workers often deal with a sense of crisis response and long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Ciardullo has made it his personal goal to provide more mental health services to his employees. He is currently attending graduate school with a focus on clinical mental health and hopes to bring more awareness to the need.
â€śWhat weâ€™re seeing with the pandemic is cumulative stress, the level of uncertainty sits badly with everyone because we donâ€™t know what might happen or who might be exposed,â€ť he said. â€śOur workers deal with high-risk situations and that wears on them. Theyâ€™re not strangers to sickness and death, but it doesnâ€™t make the experience less traumatic.â€ť
Contact Catherine Shen at 860-801-5093 or firstname.lastname@example.org