Gloves, gown, goggles, mask. Possibly a hair net and a face shield, or even a full, impermeable body suit. During medical emergencies, where every second counts, Kingston’s first responders can not afford to miss one of these steps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After nearly three months of increased safety protocol, Tania Mcdermott of Frontenac Paramedic Services (FPS) says the exhausting process of donning many additional layers of protection has become “second nature” to her and her colleagues.
The personal protective equipment (PPE) has been required for “ninety-nine per cent of calls” since mid-March, she said. Prior to the pandemic, she said paramedics would typically only need to wear a pair of gloves on a routine call.
According to Jeff Burgess, paramedic superintendent at FPS, first responders suit up inside the ambulance cab after arriving on the scene, in case the call is cancelled before they arrive.
The fact that callers can see them, Mcdermott said, can present difficulties.
“As we’re getting dressed, we’re having to look to see if people are coming and asking why we’re taking so long,” she explained. “We have people looking at us, like ‘You’ve parked, you’ve been there for 2 minutes. Why has no one gone to the house yet?’”
She said the best way people can help paramedics work efficiently is to stay where they are. “It will delay us coming in if they’re coming towards us, because we have to stop and explain to them to wait. It can delay our arrival to the patient.”
Her colleague, Christopher Thind, notes that moving and working in the layers of PPE, especially a full body Tyvek hazmat suit, is also sometimes a challenge.
“It basically covers you from head to toe,” he said. “The gowns are not breathable, and they’re not meant to breath because they’re supposed to be a barrier.”
Both Thind and Mcdermott employ strategies to overcome some of the communication challenges PPE presents, especially with kids.
“Kids might be more scared,” Mcdermott said. “They’re already on edge usually when we come, and then you add that we’ve got the whole getup on, and they get a lot more afraid of us.”
Thind said the key is to try to turn the situation into a game. “Sometimes we’ll carry an extra mask or extra gowns with us. The key with kids is they like to partake in stuff. So we can pass them a mask and say, ‘Hey do you wanna put one on? You wanna try?’”
He said making kids feel like part of the team increases their comfort level. “We can kind of play it up, and tell them ‘You can be one of us for the day, you can help us out.’”
Mcdermott calls her PPE uniform her space suit. “Little boys tend to have fun with that one,” she said. They also carry Frontenac Paramedic teddy bears to help comfort children in the middle of emergencies.
This Friday, May 29, 2020 marks the end of the Paramedic Chiefs of Canada’s annual Paramedic Service Week, with a 2020 theme ‘Pandemics.’ In Kingston, the pandemic meant a shift in not only protocols, but also the frequency and types of calls for paramedics.
During late March and early April, paramedic Thind said local first responders noticed a slight trend towards more severe health emergencies at the beginning of the pandemic, as people hesitated calling 911, hoping to avoid hospitals.
“Now, that is starting to taper off,” he explained, as people see the system adjusting to mitigate against Covid-19.
“People are understanding that this is the new normal, and they understand with all the public health information being shared that there is increased cleaning and disinfecting going on during and after every patient contact,” he said.
“There is the public knowledge that, yes, things are being cleaned, they are being disinfected, but that care still exists.”
Burgess also noted that now that as people are starting to get out of the house more and seek out diversion, the number of motor vehicle collisions and ATV accidents has started to climb.
“Those [incidents] when people are more active, we’ve seen those rise up,” he said, noting that, besides the improved weather, he takes this as an indicator that people are ready to get out of the house. “For mental wellness, people want to get out and partake in this stuff.”
With the potential for another 18 months of pandemic protocols in place, Thind and Mcdermott say their work during the pandemic is sustainable, but tiring.
“It is exhausting,” she Mcdermott. “I’m finding in these times, after a shift, I’m tired.”
Burgess said that while FPS is running through large amounts of PPE, they’re currently well-stocked with the supplies they need. “We have a good amount of PPE right now.”
As paramedics throughout our region and across the country continue to work in the less-than-comfortable PPE, while putting their lives on the line to help others, Paramedic Services Week 2020 seems perfectly timed for Canadians to show their appreciation.
“This is a time for us to say thank you,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a video statement to Canadian paramedics on Friday, May 22, 2020. “Across the country, you are often Canadians’ first point of contact to our health care system. You show up when people need you, and you save lives every single day.”
Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community.
This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.