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Opinion | I Was an E.M.T. While Covid-19 Devastated New York

In a small, stuffy apartment, a woman in her early 60s stood in the hallway and leaned on the wall for balance. Like our last patient, she was quiet and looked scared. We asked her to sit down so that we could check her vitals. In the living room, she sat on the couch, and we noticed she was wearing a hospital bracelet. She told us she had gone to the E.R. two days before and tested positive for Covid. The hospital sent her home after a few hours. That night, her pulse, blood pressure and oxygen saturation level were normal. She was negative for stroke symptoms. We asked why she called 911.

“I called,” her son said, stepping forward. “She’s refusing to eat, and she won’t get out of bed. I tried to have her walk around, and she almost fell down, so I got scared.”

“Why didn’t the hospital keep me?” the woman asked us. “I’m so sick.”

How are we supposed to answer this question?

The pandemic has forced numerous E.M.T.s and medics to play the role of general practitioners for sick Covid patients sent home by hospitals to families that are often ill equipped to care for them. In America, we are out of practice with being around the sick and dying. We outsource our sick and infirm to hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities. Accordingly, being around sick people is incredibly distressing for families — an emergency of its own. Terrified, they call 911, unable to differentiate illness from a serious emergency. If Covid patients are stable and we transport them to the E.R., they are often sent back home. It’s a loop, and E.M.T.s are stuck in it.

This is not a war that can be fought only by brave frontline “heroes.” It’s a health care crisis that we all can help to manage. Anyone can go online and take a quick course in basic first aid and C.P.R. It only takes a few hours to gain the skills required to save a life. Being prepared for emergencies is one way to reduce some of the anxiety that comes with living with the sick.

Now, with the vaccine rollout underway, vaccinated New Yorkers will soon be rushing outdoors in the coming spring and summer months, longing for the unmasked togetherness they have been denied.

I long for it, too. It was a terrible blessing to be an E.M.T. at a time when the city was in desperate need. Many of the people we tried to save died, but many lived. I still feel shaken when I think about those deaths. But I never felt hopeless inside the screaming ambulances that radiated so much light.

Photographs by Adam Pape.

Jennifer Murphy (@gingerlidthe1st) is an E.M.T. with the Park Slope Volunteer Ambulance Corps in Brooklyn and the author of the forthcoming memoir “First Responder.”

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