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NYC Paramedic Battles ‘Paranoia and Anxiety’ as Coworker Fights COVID in ICU

Paramedic Sherry Singleton is on the front lines of the city’s coronavirus crisis.
Paramedic Sherry Singleton is on the front lines of the city’s coronavirus crisis. Photo: Courtesy of Sherry Singleton

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Emergency Medical Services paramedic Sherry Singleton has had little time to worry about her friend and colleague Christell Cadet, who remains intubated and unable to speak in a hospital intensive care unit, battling COVID-19.

Singleton, 33, can’t dwell on the hours she spent during her last shift in an ambulance transporting four coronavirus patients. Or that she hasn’t seen her fiance or 13-year-old son in two weeks.

Or that the tickle in her throat might be more ominous than just irritation from the rig’s diesel fumes.

“Like all of us now, I just go into robot mode and do what has to be done,” said Singleton. “But I do think about the last text I got from Christell, a day and a half before she was intubated.”

From her Long Island hospital bed, Cadet, 34, texted advice for her friend and all their first-responder colleagues: “Take care of yourselves first. Make sure you go home whole at the end of the day.”

“I don’t think she knew how grave her situation was,” Singleton said. “But even in the state she was in, she was being altruistic. She was giving us permission to care for ourselves.”

Rocked

After working last Tuesday at EMS Station 47 in Far Rockaway, Cadet, who is asthmatic, slumped in front of her home, unable to breathe.

While she had not been going out on calls due to an injury that placed her on modified duty, she worked out of the station house, headquarters for a steady stream of paramedics dealing with coronavirus calls.

FDNY paramedic Christell Cadet has been intubated and remains in an intensive care unit.
FDNY paramedic Christell Cadet has been intubated and remains in an intensive care unit. Photo: Courtesy of Sherry Singleton

Cadet, who joined the FDNY as an EMT in 2012 and became a paramedic less than two years later, battled the fever and breathing problems that have become hallmarks of COVID-19. Doctors tried to treat her with anti-malarial drugs, which are not covered by insurance.

“I did not think it was going to get me this bad,” Cadet told CNN last weekend. “My asthma is really under control otherwise.”

On Monday evening, she was intubated and placed on a ventilator. As of Thursday, she remained on the breathing machine, with a fever, Singleton said.

‘She’s a Warrior’

Throughout the ordeal, Singleton has continued to work 14- or 16-hour shifts, taking time out to set up a GoFundMe page for her friend’s recovery costs. As of Thursday morning, it had raised nearly $11,000 of a $60,000 goal.

“People think you get off a vent, get discharged from the hospital and life is great, but it doesn’t work that way,” she said.

Cadet’s mother and two brothers “are doing all they can, but she’s going to need help, maybe with a home health aide.

“She’s not out of the woods yet, but a ventilator isn’t a death sentence,” Singleton said, her voice cracking. “She’s a warrior.”

While dealing with her friend’s fragile condition, Singleton tries not to think about equipment changes in the FDNY ambulances. The vehicles used to be stocked with four full sets of protection equipment — N95 masks, disposable gowns, booties and goggles — per shift. Now each paramedic gets just one set per shift, she said.

Sherry Singleton, left, with Christell Cadet.
Sherry Singleton, left, with Christell Cadet. Photo: Courtesy of Sherry Singleton

“The suits they’re giving us now are really thin and not well made, so you have to be extra careful you don’t rush and rip them and break the barrier,” she said. “And they’re tracking things now, so you have to prove you used something before you can get a replacement.”

Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, said his union has been unsuccessful in acquiring better equipment from the Fire Department, which includes EMS.

“Our courageous members are picking up contaminated people day in and day out without the proper equipment,” Barzilay told THE CITY. “The FDNY has the full body gear, the hazmat suits that are non-penetrable, but has not given the order allowing us to use them. Instead, we have these paper-thin gowns that you can poke a hole through.”

As of Wednesday, 50 EMS members had tested positive for COVID-19 and 200 were out ill with symptoms, Barzilay said. The FDNY reported 84 total members, including firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, who had tested positive as of Wednesday.

“Every day more and more are out sick,” Barzilay said. “We’re on the front lines, not the firefighters or police officers, and we’re risking our lives for a little more than a dollar over the minimum wage.”

The starting salary for an FDNY EMT is roughly $35,000  — $16.82 per hour — and rises to $50,000 over five years. Paramedic pay starts at $48,000 and rises to $65,000 over the same time span.

The FDNY said in an email it was “following guidelines set forth by CDC and state/city health departments in order to best manage the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) affecting healthcare workers nationwide. The Department will continue to use the best available PPE for all our members.”

‘Have You Showered?’

The vast majority of 911 calls Singleton has responded to lately, she said, are COVID19-related.

“You can’t do our jobs while maintaining distance,” she said. “There isn’t six feet of clearance in a New York City apartment or an ambulance.”

And because of the surge in calls, patients and first responders must often wait in the ambulance until emergency room space becomes available.

“So instead of spending 40 minutes total on a call, you’re talking an hour and a half, maybe two or three hours in tight quarters with very sick people,” she said.

Between calls, the paramedics are scrupulous about decontaminating both themselves and their vehicle.

“I’m getting paranoid, though,” Singleton said. “Did I scrub my hands enough? Did I touch something without a glove? You start to second-guess everything.”

At the end of the shift, she can’t let down her guard.

“Where you’d usually go home and get a hug, [now] you might hear, ‘Have you showered?,’” she said. “It’s a mix of paranoia and anxiety on both sides. Those of us who can have self-isolated so as not to endanger our family and loved ones.”

Singleton has steered clear of her fiance. Her son is staying with other family members for the foreseeable future.

“There’s definitely a stigma,” she said. “We’re seeing the pushback now. People know what we do and there’s this invisible barrier and we’re on the other side of it. The only people who get it, really, are the people we work with.”

Singleton noted that her EMS officers took extra care in pairing shift partners, because new FDNY protocols demand the same paramedics work together to minimize cross-contamination risks.

“The frontline workers are responding to this crisis using the resources we’ve been given and the science we’ve learned,” she said. “As for ourselves and how we’re holding up and getting through it — we’re relying on faith.”

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