How We Live: For first responders in a pandemic, personal risk is in the job description

Updated: Nov. 11, 2020 at 2:08 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - First responders and healthcare professionals say it’s their worst fear.

It’s not that they’re overly worried about interacting with coronavirus-infected patients, even as the reported number of new cases across the United States continues to reach record highs.

No, no. They do that willingly. It’s part of the job description.

Instead, paramedics like Sonya Austin say they worry about the mistakes — failures, in preparation or in practice — that could expose their families to the dangers they bravely and regularly embrace.

“Everyone in (Honolulu Emergency Medical Services), we’re treating every single call as if it were a COVID call,” says Austin, an EMS supervisor who works out of Nanakuli. “Suiting up, being extra careful, putting your mask on. It’s just the attitude that it’s going to be like this. And as far as we know, it’s forever. So we adapt.”

Austin has spent most of the pandemic without any room for error.

At the conclusion of her shifts — paramedics have transported more than 500 confirmed COVID-positive patients since the onset of the pandemic, she says — Austin usually went home to help care for her 79-year-old father, who was suffering from kidney cancer.

“If he would’ve got COVID, it would’ve been bad,” says Austin.

Before her dad passed away in July, Austin says there were always questions about how best to approach his declining health.

“I feel like I was so much luckier, because I could take care of him at home, which most people can’t do,” said Austin. “Unless it was something that was life-threatening, any respiratory distress, we were gonna take care of him at home.”

Not everyone was so lucky. As cases exploded across Hawaii in early summer, prompting hospitals and other care facilities to forbid guests and visitors, what Austin saw on her shifts was heartbreaking.

“It was sad. And I was picking up those people at work, and their families are crying, they don’t want them to go to the hospital,” said Austin. “They were in a much worse position than I was.”

In the months since, as the pandemic has worn on, Austin says her stress levels have actually gone down as her familiarity with both the virus and the best ways to protect herself has increased — even though the job itself is no less dangerous.

“We’re putting (patients) into a closed ambulance, with poor ventilation, and transporting them from Nanakuli to (Queen’s Medical Center) for trauma, and we’re with that person for so long in the back,” she says, of the calls to transport patients who may be COVID-19 positive. “No one (else) would willingly go into a situation like that.”

Especially not anyone who has a home life that resembles Austin’s — not only does she have three young grandchildren running around at home, but the risk of infecting her family is doubly bad because her daughter, Yvonne, is also a paramedic.

Given the added risk, Austin says she’s had to be twice as careful about staying safe. That’s starting to take its toll.

“I do not go out nearly as much. It just is no fun to go shopping, the lines. … It’s no fun,” she says. “The going out and eating, for sure, because I do not like to cook. If I had my way, I would eat out every single night for dinner. But I do think a lot of us are eating better.”

A grandmother with a big family at home, Austin says it has been especially hard to resist the maternal urge to shower the kids at home ― especially the little ones ― with affection.

“The worst thing is that here in Hawaii we kiss and hug everyone,” Austin says. “I can’t wait until we can do that again. It’s so hard on my soul.”

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