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Pandemic worry rachets up stress for first responders

  • EMT Mariah Anthony and paramedic Rebecca Houle staff the Northfield EMS station on Thursday. Northfield EMS Chief Mark Fortier said not knowing whether patients have COVID-19 is “nerve-wracking” for staff. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Paramedic Rebecca Houle at the Northfield EMS station on Thursday. Chief Mark Fortier says not knowing who in the community might have COVID-19 is “nerve-wracking’ for himself and his staff. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh answers questions at a recent press conference at the John Zon Community Center. Haigh says his officers are trained to be careful with people they’re arresting or in situations where danger is present, but COVID-19 has introduced something new altogether. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2020 4:26:44 PM

Conway has seen few documented cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak, but that doesn’t mean Ambulance Director Gemma VanderHeld doesn’t feel the heightened sense of stress felt by her peers in more affected areas.

“We get a call and we don’t know whether the person is sick or not, and they may not even know if they’re sick,” VanderHeld said. “That’s the scariest thing with all this. Nobody knows.”

For first responders like VanderHeld, COVID-19 has added a new degree of stress to roles that can be stressful in even the best of circumstances. It’s what she calls an “invisible chaos.”

VanderHeld, who has worked as a volunteer EMT for about 10 years, said she — like many others in the field — is a bit of a “control freak.”

“A lot of people that are in EMS, they like to have control of the situation … knowing what you’re doing, what you’re getting into,” she said. “There’s something to this that we can’t control, we can’t understand.”

She said the concern for her isn’t necessarily being infected by the virus; it’s spreading it to her loved ones.

“It’s a concern for everybody,” said VanderHeld, who lives in a six-person household that includes a newborn baby.

It’s because of that unknown element of the virus — the fact someone could be carrying it without realizing it — that firefighters at the South Deerfield Fire District are taking extra care to disinfect their hands and the interior of the truck after fire alarm-related calls.

“If one of us catches it … (and) if all members of the department respond to that one call, we could find ourselves with a serious issue,” said Deputy Chief Dennis Patterson.

Patterson’s department is staffed with two full-time firefighters and 20 call members.

In addition to wiping down the inside of the fire engine, the station is also disinfected, particularly door knobs and other commonly used surfaces.

The same is happening in Greenfield, according to Police Chief Robert Haigh.

In addition to wearing personal protective equipment at all times outside cruisers, the department has added hand-washing stations at the front of the building for people to use before they enter, and foam hand sanitizer is provided for people on their way out. Cruisers are disinfected at the start and end of every shift.

“Everybody’s keeping their fingers crossed and hoping they stay healthy,” he said. “We don’t want to wipe out a whole department just because of our daily routines.”

Haigh said police officers are trained to be careful with people they’re arresting or in situations where danger is present, but COVID-19 has introduced something new altogether.

“You’re never told about the people walking down the street,” he said. “You never thought you had to protect yourself, or them, that way.”

Ultimately, his officers treat every situation like it’s a potential exposure.

The same is true of the ambulance services in Northfield, according to Northfield EMS Chief Mark Fortier.

“Regardless of whether people have a diagnosis or not … every patient contact, we are treating as a potential (COVID-19) patient,” Fortier said. “They could be asymptomatic ... and not even know it.”

He said not knowing is what can be “nerve-wracking” for himself and his staff.

Fortier pointed out that EMS providers have long risked exposure to dangerous pathogens, such as tuberculosis or HIV.

“Unfortunately, it’s just another day in the neighborhood for EMS providers,” he said.

Still, the risk presented by COVID-19 has limited the availability of his volunteer staff, most of whom continue to work full-time jobs in addition to their roles as volunteer EMTs.

“You have some volunteers that have some concerns about being involved in a COVID-sort of environment,” he said. “They have full-time jobs outside of EMS and are not willing to risk catching something and bringing it back to their primary employer.”

In Conway, VanderHeld hasn’t responded to any calls with a COVID-19-positive case, though she has been in at least one situation where a patient presented with multiple symptoms of COVID-19.

“If you think too deep into it, it can really mess with your head,” she said. So instead, you just act accordingly.

Part of dealing with that stress is finding ways to cope, VanderHeld said.

“(EMS) all have this kind of weird connection … an abstract support system, and I think our biggest way that we deal with it is that we talk about it,” she said. “If something comes up that’s a concern on any one of our minds, we bring it up to each other and figure it out.”

Keeping the atmosphere light doesn’t hurt either.

“There’s usually some sarcasm or bad jokes thrown into the middle of it,” VanderHeld said. “It’s our way of managing and mitigating (stress).”

Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne

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