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‘You hear the cries’: Virus toll haunts a New York paramedic

April 20, 2020 Jake Seiner Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — Elizabeth Bonilla pulls her ambulance up to a set of Bronx row houses. Another ambulance and a fire truck are already there, their flashing lights painting the dark streets an eerie shade of orange. Neighbors gather on their stoops to watch. Some sip wine.

“We gotta gown up,” she says as she climbs out of the vehicle. This call is a suspected COVID-19 case, which means she needs gloves, masks and a full-body plastic smock.

An empty gurney waits by the front steps while four EMS workers, Bonilla included, rush upstairs.

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About 45 minutes later, three medics emerge. Bonilla, a 43-year-old Fire Department paramedic, follows five minutes after that. She walks slowly, an oxygen tank in the bag on her back.

“This one is hard,” she says. “Real hard.”

FDNY paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, left, and Keith Kahara, right, prepared to load a patient into their ambulance on Wednesday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

The coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 8,900 people in New York City, plus as many as 3,900 more whose deaths were never confirmed by a lab test.

At its peak, emergency calls nearly doubled from their usual average. Call volume has dropped in recent days, in a sign that the crisis could be easing. Still, the FDNY’s 4,000 emergency medical workers are straining to keep up.

“I don’t think that anyone was prepared for this,” Bonilla says.

To get a sense of the challenges paramedics like Bonilla face, The Associated Press followed her through the first half of her 16-hour double shift Wednesday.

3:30 p.m.

Bonilla arrives early for her 3 p.m. start time, but the crew using her ambulance is running late. A call at the end of their shift has kept them out longer than scheduled — a standard occurrence in recent weeks.

When the vehicle finally arrives, Bonilla pulls it around to the front of FDNY EMS Station 3, in the South Bronx’s Castle Hill neighborhood.

She loads her personal supplies in through the driver’s side door. She stashes a clear plastic bag filled with sanitizing supplies and hangs up her pink stethoscope.

Her thermos, holding a home-brewed ginger-lemon tea, gets dropped into a cup holder. It — along with regular prayer — helps keep her calm.

Elizabeth Bonilla prepared her ambulance for a double shift at EMS Station 3. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

She pulls wipes from the plastic bag and begins to disinfect. She rubs down her seat, the steering wheel and the rest of the drivers’ station, and then moves to the passenger side. She finishes by sterilizing the treatment area in the back.

Bonilla’s neon-pink tools make her easy to spot — pink scissors, pink keys, pink tape on her walkie-talkie and hand sanitizer.

She also has three bright braids, each dedicated to a cancer-stricken family member. A green and orange one for her mother, who has leukemia and skin cancer; a blue one for her father, who has prostate cancer; and a pink one for her aunt, who has breast cancer.

“Hair is life,” she says. “And when you’re a cancer patient you lose your hair, and for a mental thing, it kind of makes me feel like I have them with me.”

She hasn’t seen her mother or father in two months; she can’t because of her exposure to the virus and their high-risk status. She’s been trying to help manage their lives remotely with her sparse downtime.

“I’m a single parent,” says the mother of sons ages 22 and 16. “I’m handling things at home, and I’m being a parent to my parents, and then I’m coming into work and I’m taking care of people, and then I do it all over again every day. I think taking care of others is my calling. It has to be.”

4:45 p.m.

Nearly two hours into their shift, Bonilla and her partner have yet to be pinged by dispatchers — an unthinkable lull as recently as a week ago.

They had been making between five and seven calls each shift and often worked two shifts per day, doing their best to aid patients even as they ran low on N95 face masks and oxygen tanks.

A patient on oxygen spoke to a family member as FDNY paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, right, and Keith Kahara, left, prepared to load her into their ambulance. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Social distancing measures have slowed the virus’s spread, and that has eased the demand for paramedics’ services. Bonilla is certain the calm will be short-lived, fearing another surge in COVID-19 cases when New Yorkers begin returning to work.

“It’s the eye of the storm,” she says.

The first call finally comes at around 4:50, and five minutes later, Bonilla parks the ambulance in front of an apartment building. She jumps out of the truck, puts on gloves and a mask, grabs the necessary equipment, and rushes in. Minutes later, she emerges wheeling a patient who is alert but hooked up to a breathing aid.

They pull into a nearby emergency room 30 minutes later and pass off the patient to doctors and nurses waiting in full protective gear — gloves, face shields and floor-length gowns. Bonilla brings the empty gurney back to the ambulance, sprays it with disinfectant and loads it back up.

6:55 p.m.

A backlog of ambulances builds in the ER bay while Bonilla’s unit finishes paperwork, and when they get their next call, they realize they have been completely blocked in. Dispatchers eventually give the call to another EMS team.

A few minutes later they’re back on the road, rushing to a different scene.

They arrive at a house and find a family in disarray. A shouting match breaks out on the front porch during a disagreement between family members over whether the patient should risk virus exposure by going to the hospital.

Elizabeth Bonilla arrived to an emergency call in the Bronx. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Bonilla calls for police assistance, and two officers cordon off an angry middle-aged man while Bonilla evaluates his stepson in the ambulance.

Twenty minutes later, Bonilla’s vehicle takes off with the patient still in the back. The stepfather alternates between crying and shouting as they pull away.

10:55 p.m.

Bonilla has been sleeping with the lights on and playing gospel music through the night. Anything to keep her mind from replaying the tragic moments she’s witnessed.

“You hear the cries,” she says. “You just hear and you see everything all over again.”

FDNY paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, left, and Keith Kahara, right, donned personal protective equipment before an emergency call on Wednesday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

She’s back at the station now, getting a brief break. She’s set to punch back in at 11 and start another eight-hour run, covering an overnight shift for a co-worker who needs the night off to rest and tend to family.

“I’m just drained right now,” she says. “I’m emotionally drained and physically drained and definitely mentally drained.”

She changes the subject to prayer, and explains how her faith keeps her going.

And then there are the pandemic victims, new ones every day, that she knows are relying on her expertise and support.

“The moment we walk through the door, the families, it’s almost like they’ve seen God,” Bonilla says. “They are looking for help immediately. They have this sense of relief, and then they go ahead and pass all responsibility on you.

“You want to make sure you’re strong for them.”

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  1. Kevin Davitt

    Ms. Bonilla is an incredibly brave soul. Thank you for sharing her story and the stories of those affected while many of us live our lives in relative safety during this pandemic.
    Thank you, Elizabeth.