It’s been nearly 18 months since I wrote about Covid-19 first hitting our shores and spreading to our suburbs. The transmissibility and virulence of the Delta strain has pushed the ambulance service beyond the brink of exhaustion.
It wasn’t until paramedics and other health staff began contracting Covid at work that we realised how much trouble we were in and by then more than 200 paramedics were deemed close contacts and ordered into two weeks’ isolation. I was one of them. Despite the message from the highest levels of government, this was a race, and we had tripped over the first hurdle.
After two weeks locked in and alone, I was eager to get back to work to chip in and see my friends. My enthusiasm was quickly extinguished when I stepped into the dystopian world that used to be my workplace: hospitals in crisis and nearing capacity. The tension in the air is thick, staff morale has never been lower and, despite words of encouragement from management, the only thing keeping us afloat is joking about how we’re drowning. Most of us are feeling anxious. Typically for paramedics, we find strength and solidarity through collective suffering.
As the crisis in Sydney worsened, certain ambulance sectors were left dangerously short-staffed while health management scrambled to catch up. New orders were handed down – full PPE must now be worn for every patient. Full PPE means droplet precautions, mask, gloves, goggles and plastic gown. If anyone finds popping a mask on to order a coffee exasperating, try wrapping yourself in cling-wrap and going to work for 12 hours.
What started as a trickle became a flood of call-outs for Covid-positive patients needing help. It has never been like this. I’ve entered houses where all occupants are Covid positive. Some are sick, some are just scared and apologise for wasting our time. They’re not sure how bad they need to get before they should go to hospital. Some don’t speak English, or have poor health literacy, and fear there’ll be repercussions should they test positive. Fear of testing not only prolongs lockdowns, it can also prove deadly.
I went home, went to bed and woke up the next day to do it all over again. I’ll keep doing so until we’re out of this
I’ve turned up to a house to find every member symptomatic, and none had been tested. We found a patient unconscious and not breathing and commenced CPR. Chest compressions aren’t like the movies, they’re brutal. CPR is also physically demanding, particularly in restrictive PPE. Trying to keep calm while out of breath under a mask, sweating under a layer of plastic while trying to insert an artificial airway, get a cannula in a vein, evaluate a cardiac rhythm on a monitor to determine whether to deliver a shock isn’t a walk in the park.
Conveying sympathy to a family, through fogged up goggles, that their loved one couldn’t be saved is even harder. The whole household ended up being Covid-positive and needed hospitalisation. This is now a typical shift for us.
The other night on my way home, while popping into the bottle shop to pick up an essential item, I noticed an irate customer at the checkout not wearing a mask. He was yelling about his rights and calling the teenage worker “Gladys’ puppet”. As I watched him ranting about the vaccine to the perplexed looking teenager behind perspex, I began to ponder.
I wondered if this man was having an asthma attack, would he question the nebuliser I’d administer to open up his airways. If he had an anaphylactic reaction to his bottle of rum, would he call life-saving adrenaline a “fake drug”. If he slipped and broke a leg, would he trust me to put a needle in his vein and give morphine or would he ask for proof that it worked? No, I’m pretty sure if this man was in strife, he would be desperate for my help. He would put faith in the science, the protocols and the training of the practitioner providing the treatment. He would listen to the health advice.
Every person who disobeys health orders pushes the finish line further back. Like everyone out there providing an essential service, I’m sacrificing more than my freedom. The loneliness I feel by keeping totally isolated from loved ones and the risk I put myself at helping us all get back to a normal life is burning me out.
In that moment, I felt like getting into an argument but instead I left. I went home, went to bed and woke up the next day to do it all over again. I’ll keep doing so until we’re out of this. If everyone else does their part by getting vaccinated you’ll ensure paramedics aren’t left in pieces beyond the pandemic. After all, we’re only human too.
The author is a paramedic at an ambulance station in Sydney’s south-west