Tales from COVID-19 Frontlines: Passionate High School and College Volunteer EMTs Step Up

Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps (WVAC) accepts eager EMT-certified teens every year to help serve the community and learn on the job. But with the COVID-19 crisis, in-person learning doesn’t come without life-threatening risk and sacrifice. Nevertheless, Wilton High School juniors Anika Engel (16) and Pierce Bazewicz (17) and college student Elana Everett (20) from Ridgefield are stepping up.

What volunteering means right now

WVAC Vice President Brian McDermott said in an email to GMW that high school EMTs could only work with permission from their parents due to the risk of exposure, in a policy set in March that decreased WVAC’s student volunteer pool significantly. This move was followed by a decision on Monday, March 30 that reduced member units from three to two people unless a third person was absolutely necessary, a choice WVAC made to limit the number of volunteers potentially exposed to COVID-19 and make the most efficient use available Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Because Engel and Bazewicz are not 18 years old–and therefore ineligible for crew chief certification–they will now only be placed on a shift when a driver without certification is working, so at least two certified EMTs are on a call, McDermott said.

For many teens, the threat of COVID-19 still feels far away, but for Bazewicz and other first responders, it’s close up and all too real.

“Saturday I got an email saying that my patient from [that day] tested positive [for COVID-19],” he said. Bazewicz added that though the PPE he wore likely kept him safe, the experience was quite scary, and he has been making sure to be careful around his family.

However, despite this jarring experience, Bazewicz isn’t deterred. His resolve stems from the decision to become an EMT and join WVAC right from the start. “Coming from a privileged area of the world, I wanted to give back to the community the best I could,” he says. He’s been volunteering as much as he can.

“I’m almost in love with doing this. It gives me a sense of empowerment and it’s like my adrenaline rush for the day.“

Everett, who’s volunteering in between balancing her now-online courses at Boston University, said for her, volunteering during a public health crisis isn’t a selfless, active choice to help the community–it’s simply part of the job.

“I volunteered to be an EMT and I volunteered to do that regardless of what the circumstances are,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I feel like there’s honestly very little that would make me stop, to be honest, because I really enjoy the work. I really enjoy helping the community…it’s not fair for me to just stop doing my job because it’s become a little more dangerous.”

Beyond helping patients, Everett has tried to help her community of EMT’s, volunteering to take extra shifts to protect people who may face a greater risk if they contract the illness. “If there are open shifts, I try to pick them up as much as I can, as much as I’m available, to help out,” she said. “I also appreciate the fact that being 20, I’m one of our younger members, so I would happily pick up open shifts so that way some of our older members don’t have to work as much and put themselves at as much of a risk right now.”

What it’s like on the job now

Everett said the biggest difference now in how EMTs operate on a call is the Personal Protective Equipment the team has to wear.

“It’s pretty much standard that on any call we go to, regardless of what the call is for, we’re always going to be wearing our N95 masks, goggles or some sort of a shield, and obviously at least a pair or two of gloves,” Everett said. If the patient does report having symptoms that align with COVID-19, they take extra precautions such as wearing a gown, hair coverings and booties.

Bazewicz said the same, adding that wearing all the equipment adds some discomfort. “[It can get] a little bit sweaty at times. Breathing through the respirator into goggles and having all the CO2 and water vapor accumulate on the inside of the goggles can cause them to fog up at times. But outside of that, it’s just like having more layers of clothing on, more layers of protection,” he added.

Bazewicz said that though the treatment and protocols in the field for treating people are the same as always, now in each patient chart they must indicate what protective equipment the EMS personnel were wearing so if a patient tests positive, the hospital can alert the EMS personnel if they were exposed or not.

Everett said it has also been rewarding to see the community adopting public health initiatives that WVAC has been advocating for on its website and on Facebook.

“We posted about how helpful it is for people to have their medical history written down so that way we don’t have to enter the house and start looking for things,” Everett said. “So I also like that aspect of…getting more involved in the public health and the prevention aspect of it as well.”

Why they serve

Engel, who wants to go into the medical field as a nurse or a physician’s assistant, said that she is also passionate about volunteering, and especially enjoys helping ease her friends’ and family’s concerns by telling them about what WVAC is doing to keep everyone safe.

“It’s such a good community feeling,” Engel said. “Everyone [at WVAC] is a family and I just really like it there.”

Working during the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t changed their idea of what it means to be in the medical field. “If anything,” Everett said, “it almost makes me want to do patient care a little bit more.”

She added, “It helps me see how important of a role we can have in improving both patient care and community health.”

Everett said that though she has gained fulfillment from joining the global health community, she also sees it as her duty as a health care volunteer. Witnessing the dedication and “amazing” work of WVAC and Norwalk Hospital staff has been inspiring. She hopes to become an ER doctor herself.

“It definitely is rewarding to be part of a workforce like this and being able to help the community as much as I can,” Everett said. “But for me at least, and I think for a lot of other healthcare professionals, we’re just trying to do our jobs–to help sick people when they call us.”

Bazewicz echoed Everett’s sentiments, saying that he felt empowered to be able to have a role in helping people in a crisis like this.

“I’m more energized to join the medical field because I’m eager to figure out a better way to treat patients, a better way to solve this pandemic in general, and a better way to solve future episodes like this.”

He added it has been “quite cool to see” people drop off extra equipment at the WVAC headquarters as well, including hand sanitizer and homemade surgical masks. He’s “in love” with being an EMT, and is thankful he can serve the community through this passion in this difficult time.

“It’s really cool opportunity that at the age of 16, and 17 now that I’m able to play I think, a pretty decent role in this whole pandemic,” Bazewicz said. “It’s really cool to be able to help out and make a difference.”