Adrian Hunt*, a 7-year EMT Veteran on Long Island, NY, loved connecting with her patients when on a call. She prided herself in being able to calm someone down by communicating with them – she knew personal details like hobbies, favorite foods or children’s names before they even arrived at the hospital. She often checked in on patients on her days off and easily connected with the loved ones of those she helped to save. In 2020, her life changed forever when COVID-19 came crashing into the lives of everyone around her.
“Suddenly, nearly every moment was filled with urgent calls, desperate struggles to triage situations for each patient – were they COVID positive or was it a heart attack,” recalled Adrian. “The struggles to communicate with patients and their terrified family members became a foreign language to me, I didn’t know how to approach my job every day.”
There’s no question that first responders have some of the greatest risks of anyone during a pandemic like COVID-19. They respond and are required to act with limited information, whether it’s law enforcement, fire service or EMS. These warriors oftentimes need to act before they’re able to get a full history or other potential risk factors – like exposure to infectious disease.
“The role of First Responders has changed so much in the last year,” stated Adrian. “We have always been taught that every call can put us in a dangerous situation. Now, every call is a potential life threat. Every person we interact with is now looked at as a potential exposure – or ‘COVID Patient X’.”
Working within high stress environments is familiar for first responders, law enforcement, emergency room and intensive care staff. Frontline workers have been trained to maintain a level of composure while performing complicated procedures like gunshot wounds, heart attacks, and patients coding. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new challenge to this group of professionals; a chronic level of stress and uncertainty that threatens both the physical and mental health of the frontline workers.
When the COVID-19 outbreak erupted in mid-March, medical professionals world-wide scrambled to acquire enough personal protective equipment for workers to care for those infected. Many health care providers and first responders were directly infected while responding to the pandemic, while others work tirelessly to combat the spread. Doctors and paramedics, who are accustomed to responding to virtually any tragedy, had to shift their focus due to the risk of getting sick themselves, or infecting their friends or family. In an effort to lower the risk, many frontline workers made the difficult decision to socially isolate themselves; making arrangements for their family to spend time apart from one another.
“My wife is a Lieutenant in the fire department,” stated Adrian. “She and I didn’t see each other in person for close to two months at the start of the outbreak. We had to quarantine based on the level of exposure we were enduring daily. Having to Zoom the one person you love more than anything, not being able to hold them during one of the scariest times in our lives was absolute torture. It was the loneliest feeling, not being able to kiss her goodbye, knowing she or I had every potential of contact.”
For many frontline workers, the outcome of the quarantine hasn’t fared easily; the last kiss before a shift, could truly be the last. Teammates of the same hospital unit, family members who rely on their jobs in high-exposure situations (public transportation, first responders, teachers) go to work with the fear if they will make it home safely from exposure.
“We rely heavily on Paramedics, EMT’s, ER surgeons and other medical personnel who are the first line of defense for medical trauma,” stated Tom Spooner, co-founder of Warriors Heart, a private treatment facility providing care for addiction and chemical dependency & PTSD for active military, veterans and first responders. “As a population minority, they are regularly asked to go above and beyond their call of duty, resulting in the development of patterns for substance abuse or other types of addiction due to their response to job stress. These situations create vicious cycles that are incredibly difficult to overcome alone.”
Warriors Heart has taken into consideration the underlying concern that medical professionals and first responders will be the patients of tomorrow. The team is making efforts to ensure they are well versed in understanding concepts such as ‘moral injury'(the psychological impact of bearing witness to unacceptable things or making decisions that contravene the morals of the individual making them, resulting in severe guilt and shame).
With exposure to this potentially deadly virus and rising numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths, healthcare workers are increasingly more frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed and burned out. The most poignant being how to process these new experiences.
“Many of these folks are fresh out of training and are faced with following new protocols about which patients will not receive life support if there are resource scarcities,” stated Spooner. “These are decisions some of these first responders never thought they would face, and now they are triaging situations similar to this, multiple times a day.”
First responders are being used for riskier patients and are increasingly involved with managing human remains in possible coronavirus-related deaths in prehospital settings. “I can’t remember a time when I had such difficulty sleeping,” stated Adrian. “I constantly had a reel of victims who weren’t able or were too afraid to get help.”
The community at Warriors Heart embraces these warriors, helping them through this unprecedented period – and beyond. “We understand the apprehension first responders face over seeking mental health care,” stated Spooner. “Losing face. Having their privacy invaded. Losing their hospital privileges, possibly even their jobs.”
As the pandemic wanes in the months ahead, mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals play a vital role in addressing the symptoms in frontline health care workers, first responders and law enforcement. Treatment facilities anticipate having to provide care for these patients suffering from PTSD due to COVID-19, and aide on the recovery of these specific occupational hazards.
Highly stressful situations affect people deeply and can create feelings of detachment or loneliness. Warriors Heart is fully equipped to provide much of the needed mental health care through telehealth services, including video visits with mental health professionals, mobile apps, online resources, and virtual peer support, as well as in-person treatment at their facility.
At Warriors Heart, Warriors in every walk of life are treated, offering a variety of treatment for those undergoing the damaging effects of PTSD as well as chemical dependency. For those who have fought battles to defend our country and protect our citizens, fighting the battle against addiction and depression doesn’t need to be done alone.