The Queens Memory Project brings you the fifth episode of season two of the Queens Memory Podcast. This season we have collected the documented experiences of Queens residents during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
In this episode, we hear from first responders of color who have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the very beginning.
Diana Wilson has been an EMT with the New York Fire Department for 17 years in Springfield Gardens. Rob Semple has been a firefighter with the FDNY in Corona for less than a year. Both Rob and Diana are first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rob, who is new to the force, remembers their 20-week training being cut short by two weeks in order to get more firefighters in the field as soon as possible to help with the pandemic. Indeed, medical 911 calls to the FDNY rose from 4,000 to 6,500 per day, including a notable spike in calls involving cardiac arrest, and a 400% increase in cardiac arrest home deaths.
Diana notes a new rule for paramedics, implemented because of the pandemic: Limit your use of CPR. This rule was put in place by the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City, in an attempt to keep COVID-19 positive people from entering hospitals and infecting others. However, following widespread objections, the New York Health Department rescinded the order.
Previously, according to New York City EMS protocol, CPR should be initiated to all patients in a state of cardiac arrest, unless signs of obvious death are present or the patient has Do Not Resuscitate orders in place.
Diana and Rob discuss the emotional toll they have felt during these trying times. Diana lost her husband to an illness in April 2019, and after COVID-19 took hold in New York City, she sent her children to live somewhere outside of the epicenter. She reports feeling isolated without her family around her, especially after two of her colleagues died by suicide in the midst of the pandemic.
Similarly, Rob notes that many of their fellow firefighters find comfort in spouses and significant others, which Rob does not have. While the FDNY offers mental health support, neither Diana nor Rob have utilized it, though both encourage people to find support within their communities.
Rob also reflects on the unifying effect 9/11 had on the FDNY as a result of so much shared loss, and they lament that the pandemic hasn’t brought about the same response.
Fellow EMS worker Christell Cadet tested positive for COVID-19 in March and was told to come into work anyway. (In the early days of the pandemic this was not unheard of because hospitals were so overwhelmed.) Cadet has asthma, a respiratory condition which she is 20% more likely to have as a Black American woman than a non-Hispanic white American woman. Eventually, Cadet went to the hospital, where her condition worsened and she was put in a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator. (COVID-19 patients that require ventilators are always put into comas.) Cadet awoke from her coma a month later.
All medical personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic work long hours, are under immense stress, and literally put their lives at risk while working. It is an incredibly dangerous job, and workers like Cadet and 100,000 others have paid a high price. For this reason, there has been a widespread call for hazard pay to be distributed to essential workers, like medical staff, who put their lives on the line for us all.
Hazard Pay has been a point of contention between first responders and the government since the onset of the pandemic. “Hazard Pay” is additional pay for workers performing hazardous duties. Diana, as an EMS worker, has not received hazard pay for working on the front lines of the deadly pandemic. She reports hearing that doctors and nurses received hazard pay -- which could be because certain private hospitals and private c