NEW YORK, NY — Even for New York City’s most experienced emergency responders, the coronavirus crisis brought a level of trauma, unlike anything they’d seen before.
For months, EMS and FDNY workers took on long shifts and new neighborhoods as the number of daily calls doubled and a quarter of their own workforce came down with the virus.
Severe COVID-19 cases and unrelated medical emergencies, where people were afraid to call 911 before it was too late, meant a daily reckoning with an unprecedented amount of death. New York City’s daily fatalities climbed from 60 to 80 to well over 300 at the height of the pandemic.
“It felt like a bomb went off,” said Paramedic Lt. Anthony Almojera, who works out of Sunset Park. “I saw more cardiac arrests in that two-month span than my entire 10-year career.”
That unprecedented crisis meant an equally unprecedented level of post-traumatic stress to a workforce already plagued with mental health struggles, Almojera said.
And, not to mention, it isn’t over yet.
“You wake up, it’s COVID. You go to sleep, it’s COVID,” Almora said. “Usually it’s 30 days after an event to be diagnosed with [post-traumatic stress disorder — there’s no 30 days after the event yet.”
That’s why Almojera, the Vice President of the EMS union, is urging his fellow emergency workers to take advantage of a new program offering free trauma therapy to New York City’s first responders.
The program — a partnership with EMS FDNY Help Fund and the NYC Trauma Recovery Network — will bring a new option for workers who historically don’t seek help because of lacking mental health resources and a culture of stigma, he said.
EMS workers have the highest rate of suicide per capita and the highest rate of substance abuse, Almojera said, adding that three workers have taken their own lives during the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re a service that rides the lighting strike, to begin with,” he said.
“With the program] they can feel free to go and get help and not have to worry about stigmas or work-related issues creeping in.”
The program offers six to ten free, confidential counseling sessions from TRN with licensed psychotherapists trained in what’s known as EMDR, a PTSD treatment. Additional mental health services will also be covered through the Fund, which gives general financial help to FDNY-EMS members.
Almora said the program has already been helping members who have started the sessions, including himself.
“I’m somebody who has been in therapy for 17 years, but this is my first EMDR [experience],” he said. “I can say that the effects are already being felt.”
Almora said the program has given him tools to come out of moments of depression more quickly, be less irritable, and increase his sleep from four to six hours a night.
He has one piece of advice for his fellow workers hesitant to try: “You have to do it.”
“The trick to being EMS paramedics is you feel you have to have an unlimited reservoir of empathy,” Almora said.
“What the pandemic has shown me is there is a limit — You can dry up that well. And the person you start to show the least amount of empathy for is yourself. That’s where the trouble begins.”
FDNY-EMS members who are interested in taking advantage of the counseling services can sign up here. The EMS FDNY Help Fund also provides assistance to members whose spouses have lost their jobs, who need help with medical bills or other financial assistance. To donate click here.