When the Helper Needs Help… Working Through A Pandemic

By Sasha J. Lefler

I am a Critical Care Paramedic in a small town.  I’m also the supervisor of our county’s division.  I’ve worked for the same company since 2003, and I love what I do and where I work.  Sometimes, because we aren’t in big cities, it gets brushed off as we don’t experience the trauma and PTSD that first responders in the more populated areas experience.  But I don’t agree.  Sometimes, I think it’s worse.

Working in the town I grew up in, it is rare that I don’t have a connection of some sort to my patients.  I’ve ran calls for the grandmother and dad of one of my former partners.  Neither lived to come out of the hospital.  I dreaded seeing her after that because in my mind she would see me as a failure.  But when I did, she thanked me because she knew that I did everything I could.  I’ve ran calls for coworkers that were in line of duty deaths.  It was the most helpless I think I’ve ever felt in my EMS career.  I’ve ran calls for police officers that have had my back on sketchy calls that have also become friends.  I’ve ran calls for former students (I was also a teacher previously), teachers, coaches, principals, pastor’s wives, coworkers, friends, and even my own mother and father.

If something goes wrong at my kid’s school Christmas play or sporting event I’m attending, guess who even off duty goes to help…even if you miss your kids’ line or amazing three pointer, there is a duty to act when someone needs help and it doesn’t matter what is going on, you have that internal pull.  It might be a different kind of stress and trauma, but it is just as real as any other.

Thursday, March 19, 2020 I was working a 24 hour shift on the ambulance.  The night before, I had a sore throat and had noticed some blisters in the back, but just figured with all the extra cleaning and sanitizing we had been doing in hopes of keeping the Corona Virus out of WV (yep, last state to catch the dreaded thing supposedly), I figured it was more of a chemical irritation.  But now suddenly, my throat felt like hot razor blades was slicing through it when I swallowed.

It was worse than after I had my tonsillectomy.  I went to a mirror to see what was happening.  There, as I held the flash light shining into the back of my throat, I saw that the blisters had ruptured and were causing white ulcers on the back of my throat.  “Great,” I thought, “strep.”  So, I texted my doctor.  I can hear some of you thinking “You have your doctor’s phone number???” We have that kind of relationship.  Mainly because she was my paramedic partner in 2004-2005.  When she decided to go to D.O. school, I decided to go to paramedic school (she was my inspiration because of how passionate she was about her patient care).

“Soooo…. I think I have strep.  Ulcerated blisters in the back of my throat
and petechiae.  Not sure coming to the office is a good idea right now
with everything going on.  Joints are kinda achy right now and I’ve been a little fatigued, but I’ve been working a lot so probably nothing. Thinking it might be strep.”

She replied and wanted me to come by the office to the drive through testing sight setup outside so I could be tested for strep and flu.  If those were negative, she would have them do a CoVid test. I told her I would come straight there from work in the morning. I didn’t have the triad of coughing, fever, and shortness of breath, and I was sure that the strep test was coming back positive.  She apparently has not lost her EMS sense of humor, because later that night, she sent me this…

And a good laugh was had by all.

The next morning I showered at the station, then went straight to the clinic.  Drove up and the nice, smiling nurse came out with those awful swabs.  She took my temp.  It was 99.9 which is a bit high for me because I normally run a cool 97.4 degrees.   She was so sweet looking as she jabbed the back of my throat with one and ran that other one up to just below my eyeballs, making said eyeballs water badly.  “I’ll be back in about 15 minutes with the results.”  Smiling, I try to croak out “thanks.”  So, I sat in the car and scrolled Facebook, knowing that my strep would come back positive. Until about 15 minutes later when I have two nurses coming at me in full PPE with another swab… and I’m thinking “What in the world?”

They stopped at the front of my car.  I rolled down the window and she says, “Your strep and flu were negative, we have to do a CoVid test.”  One comes closer to my window, still keeping her distance, and says, it’s another swab like the flu that goes up your nose.  LIES!!!!  That swab goes to the brain… I would swear to it!  She apologizes and says, “Sorry… it has to stay for 15 seconds to get a good sample.”  And then she rotates it!  The whole time, there are a lot of things running through my mind.  Thinking about all the patients I’ve treated… which one might have had it… then which one I might have given it to if I did have it… I now have to go home to my family… my ten year old is going to flip out!

She finally withdraws the swab and retreats back from the car.  I asked with watery eyes (possibly not just from the tingling from the swab), “So, now what?”  This was still early on in the stages of CoVid in WV (remember we still didn’t have our first positive).  We hadn’t been forward and aggressive with testing yet either.  She advised I could go home and needed to self-isolate until the results were back from a particular testing company.  Then she turned and went inside, leaving me sitting in my car in the parking lot and alone.

I started to call my husband, but I didn’t even really know what to say.  Do I go home?  A hotel?  I felt completely displaced.  So, I called my company’s infection control officer first to try to gain some perspective on how bad this really was going to be.  I have to give props to my company for staying on top of things with this crisis and so much information had been given to us, but it just seemed different in that moment because it wasn’t just a distant idea anymore.  A 40 minute conversation with lots of information and planning took place (he now knows the layout of my house as well as entry points to it).  He did an excellent job of calming some of my fears, but I also had several good cries, especially when talking about how to explain all this to my 10 year old son.

You see, in the world of technology, this kid loves social media… TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and more… and guess what the hot topic had been?  Corona Virus!  And he had read lots on it.  Since it first started, he had been coming to me with all sorts of information he was gleaning and not all of it was valid or reliable sources.  His mind was racing ahead with all the sensationalism of this silent killer.  I answered questions and tried to calm fears rationally, but now… this fear is coming home.  How do you explain you’ve been tested for a virus that he has seen as a monster killing so many people?  He doesn’t fully get the percentages of people who survive because the news was mainly talking about all the deaths.  How do I tell him without scaring him?

So, with the help of an amazing infection control officer named Paul, we came up with a plan.  And then I called my husband thinking, “Ok, I’m good and can handle this.”  But when I did, I kind of broke again (let me be honest and admit I break a lot, I feel a lot, and I’m not one to hide my emotions). Things like, “I’ll stay in our room and our bathroom only.”  “I won’t have any physical contact with you all.”  “We will wait on test results and I’m sure everything will be fine.”  “I’ll be home in a little bit, make sure the boys stay in their rooms until I can get in and you can disinfect my path.” Well… it suddenly became a reality, and reality was a bit scarier when said out loud.

They said test results should only take 3-4 days.  I can handle this for 3-4 days.  Boy, was that ever a “not truth”!

My husband was amazing during this time.  He was the only one that would breach the doorway of the bedroom, bringing food, drinks, and anything else I might need.  A chair was set outside my bedroom door where my boys would come and converse with me from outside the door while I sat on the opposite side of the room.  Many times, it was “Are your test results back yet?”  <Sigh> “No.”  And other times it was, “Are you feeling sick?”  “Do you think you have it?”  This went on for days.  Eleven to be exact.  ELEVEN!

My doctor was on the testing company daily explaining I was a first responder, asking if we could possibly tag this test to get priority.  We were short-handed and a pandemic was starting to hit here. I was essential (I hate that word now).  She was AMAZING staying on top of them and staying in contact with me.  One night, she texted me to call her on her home phone, which I did.  When she answered, she was laughing hysterically and said, “You have to call me back! I have to take a picture of my caller ID!”  In my mind I was thinking, she’s lost it, the Rona has gotten to her.  But I did… after a couple of rings she answered still laughing and said she was going to text me the picture.  This is the pic I received…


Yep, that would be my last name and the first four letters of my husband’s first name basically mocking me as I waited for these results to come back.  So, when I called anyone with caller ID, it was like the Rona was calling.  Literally.  Remember, my doc was also a paramedic and my partner so we still have that morbid sense of humor.  Despite the fact we both had a good laugh, the thought still nagged, “What if?”

During my wait, I cleaned my bedroom and bathroom a lot.  During my wait, WV had its first positive Co-Vid test.  During my wait, I read as much as I could on what was happening.  During my wait, I researched patient treatments and the vent settings and positions that seemed to work best on infected patients for when I could get back to work (crazy as it seems, not once did it ever cross my mind that after this I wouldn’t immediately go back out there and do what I do).  During my wait, I felt like I was letting everyone down… including my family and my work family.  During my wait, I still used my phone to try to keep my station and employees running as smoothly as possible from a distance.  During my wait, sometimes the isolation started to get to me.  During my wait, I missed physical contact of any kind.

During my wait, my husband admitted that he didn’t know how I was doing it, at least he could go outside and to the garage.  During my wait, I had amazing people calling me… from friends, to family, to coworkers, to the owner of our company… all taking time to check on me, but I always answered with, “No, I haven’t gotten my results yet.” During my wait, my mind really imagined some horrible scenarios and outcomes.  During my wait, I encouraged my family while having my own doubts. During my wait, my 10 year old asked, “If it comes back negative and you go back to work, will we not be able to touch you anymore again?”

During my wait, my boys ate dinner on the front porch one night so we could converse through a screen in my bedroom window just beside the porch.    During my wait, I had amazing co-workers come and stand in my front yard to talk to me through that same screened window.  During my wait, one of the sweet firemen brought chocolate and dropped it off after he had run a call to try to cheer me.  During my wait, I had many breakdowns and ugly cries.  During my wait, even though I put on a good front, I was scared and wanted this over with one way or another.  There was a lot that happened during my wait as I sat in my bedroom hoping for the best and wondering about the worst.

Finally!  On the eleventh day, my doctor texted me a message she received from her contact at the Lab company which said my results were negative (she’s a little thing, but kind of scary in her own way, and he had been reporting to her three times a day on my results which had always been “in line for testing”).  My husband was in the garage and I texted him.  I immediately went to my boys.  They heard me coming and met me in the hallway that goes to their respective bedrooms and we all embraced.  I cried.  With the exception of a vacation I took to Greece, eleven days was the longest I’ve ever gone without hugging them. And I promise, that was the best hug I’ve ever had from them.  We would let go and then hug again.  It felt so good.  My doctor texted me a release form which I in turn texted to my safety officer and infection control officer so I could return to work the next day because that’s what we do as first responders.  Oh… and I didn’t go back in my bedroom for the rest of the day.  🙂

Today, as I type this, I sit in my office at work.  I know that at any given time, I could come into contact with someone who is infected and not even know it.  But I also know as does anyone who is in this field for the right reasons, that this is a passion, and I want to help people.  I want to be there when the call comes that someone is in need.  I take every precaution when going home that I can to make sure I don’t accidentally carry it back to my family.  And even though I shower and disinfect like crazy before any contact with anyone, I still sometimes hesitate when my family wants to hug me.  And I hate it, but it is my reality right now.

Vanessa from Armor Up WV messaged me a lot during my time at home, encouraging me.  She has been a true friend, and I’m so proud of the work she is doing with Safe Call Now and Armor Up WV.  So, when she approached me about writing about my experience, I didn’t hesitate.  I wanted to share in hopes that it would help someone else who might feel a little silly about the fear they are having in going out and facing this in their job.  Let me tell you, it is not silly, or stupid, or anything else except valid.  I never thought this little blurb about my experience would be this long, but I found as I typed, there was also a bit of healing.  It was cathartic.  Maybe a little bit of confidence was gained that I didn’t let my fear defeat me.

And in that realization, I want to encourage you… reach out… talk about it… sometimes we feel we can’t show weakness, but it is only when we admit we struggle, that we can gain strength from others.  I write this in hopes that it encourages even just one to reach out if you are struggling with fear about our fight against an invisible enemy. Remember, you don’t have to suffer in silence and you are never fighting alone.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008