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Valuable Lessons Learned as an EMT During the Pandemic

After graduating from UCLA in May of 2019, Matt Guarino ’15 spent the last year as an EMT in Los Angeles. This experience will serve him well when he arrives at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the fall of 2020. His service on the frontlines of medicine in a pandemic not only prepared him for a career in medicine, but most importantly reshaped his view of the human side of patient care in the future. Read more below about Matt’s experiences…

As an EMT in Los Angeles, the past few months have been far from normal. The pandemic inundated us with new policies, PPE, and a sense of unrest amongst both ourselves and our patients.

EMTs are at a higher risk for exposure simply due to the nature of the job. I’m fortunate enough not to have any risk factors, nor do the people I live with, so my personal fear of the virus is relatively low, but others aren’t as lucky. I have co-workers who had to move out of their homes because they can’t put their families at risk, and some who took time off because of their own pre-existing conditions.

While I agree that flattening the curve and protecting at-risk populations from the virus is important, I can’t ignore the spreading fear and the effect it has on general health. What happens when people are afraid to see their physician, refill a prescription, go out to exercise, and are filled with anxiety about the pandemic, losing their jobs, or losing loved ones? Overall health deteriorates, and problems that may have been easily fixed become major medical concerns, which caused our number of cardiac arrests to rise substantially during this time. Even more alarming, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services reported that call volume across the nation is down about 34%, leaving the emergency rooms around us looking like ghost towns with screening tents pitched at the entrances, ready to protect the hospital from infection.

It’s disheartening to respond to patients with accumulated issues due to months in quarantine. Even worse, when they call for help, they aren’t greeted by friendly EMTs eager to help, rather by faces hidden behind masks bombarding them with questions about their travel history and potential exposure. The general rule in healthcare right now is to assume everyone has the virus. We’re required to screen every patient before even beginning an assessment related to their complaint, wear stuffy masks and fogged-up goggles, and thoroughly disinfect every surface after each call before lathering on hand sanitizer, leaving us feeling more like a cleaning crew than EMTs. Before, the best part of my job was seeing the look of relief on the patient’s face when help arrived and providing support however needed. Now, we’re all too focused on donning the proper PPE and keeping 6 feet away to make any sort of personal connection.

During this pandemic, I’ve realized that, as a medical worker, I can’t let my own fear dictate how I treat patients. At first, when every call felt as if I were preparing for a hazmat spill, the patient didn’t look like a person to me. They represented the virus, and I only thought about following the new policies, keeping my distance, and dreading the paperwork and disinfecting that would follow. I recognized that my fear is probably a fraction of what the patient feels. Not only are they in the same pandemic, but they are dealing with a medical complaint that warranted a 911 call, and they deserve a provider that cares enough to treat them like a human instead of an infection to contain. 

As I finish up my time as an EMT and enter medical school, I hope to remember my experiences during these past few months for the rest of my career. Although I still need to choose a specialty, and may not even stay in the field of emergency medicine, the idea of treating every patient like a human, instead of an object needing repair or a virus to eradicate, will stay with me. Even outside of the medical field, it’s important to be aware that everyone is living through the same reality, yet still need to be cared for. For me, this involves trusting my protective equipment to do its job, and doing what I can to provide the support that my patients need. Taking care of your neighbor and treating others with respect, patience, and kindness is more important now than ever before.