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Fighting on the frontlines: The University’s EMT student volunteers

Emergency medical technician student volunteers discuss their integral contribution to preserving the safety of Charlottesville

From the back of the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad ambulance trucks to the hospital itself, EMTs are constantly witness to the fatal afflictions of COVID-19, and want to remind everyone that social distancing is essential.
From the back of the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad ambulance trucks to the hospital itself, EMTs are constantly witness to the fatal afflictions of COVID-19, and want to remind everyone that social distancing is essential.

The novel coronavirus is a test of humanity’s patience, endurance and immunity as we fight this battle together. However, individuals in the medical field are on the front lines, carrying the rest of the world on their backs. For many emergency medical technician student volunteers at the University, going home is not an option — and not because they are mandated to stay and serve, but because of their commitment to serve as first-aid responders for the Charlottesville community. These EMT students are just like you and me, but they risk their lives in pursuit of a flattened curve.  

The Charlottesville and Albemarle fire and rescue departments  consist of a diverse group of individuals, and only a select few are students at the University. However, the latter have had to make significant adjustments — balancing the duality of student and first-aid responder, all while risking their own health. In response to the inherent dangers posed by the pandemic, many of these students have been self-quarantining in Charlottesville to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when they’re not at their weekly shifts. 

For many students, including third-year College student Kody Park, taking on the responsibilities of serving their community coincides with their responsibilities to keep their own families safe. Although they have the desire to return home, the risk of exposure and contamination is too high. 

“My grandpa suffers from chronic pneumonia,” Park said. “If I’m volunteering once a week for an activity that makes me highly susceptible to [COVID-19], I can’t afford to risk — even if it’s the tiniest risk — to pose a threat to my grandpa.”

Many will potentially resonate with this, and it has become crucial to consider the responsibilities that the general public must bear together. EMTs are constantly witness to the fatal afflictions of COVID-19 and want to remind everyone that social distancing is essential. 

“The necessity to practice social distancing is much more important than any of our desires to want to meet people,” Park said. 

In response to the fourth years who have had their last semester shortened, fourth-year Nursing student Ryan Thomas expressed that although it may be devastating, things will always work out in the end. It is crucial for students not to give up but be compliant with precautionary guidance.

“We, just as much as everyone else right now, have to make this short-term sacrifice,” Thomas said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “It is horribly inconvenient for us, [and] it sucks. But in the big picture, it pales in comparison to those who are on the frontlines.”

Social distancing is not only for the betterment of the youth, but also for those who are at higher risk. 

“Right now, it is so important to just stay at home, distance yourself and adapt,” Thomas said. “Our doctors, nurses, first responders and healthcare allies are doing an impossible task and are living in constant agony of being exposed and potentially becoming sick.”

As for other EMTs, their concern for the community is on the resource and staff deprivation within the healthcare systems. According to CNN and The New York Times, some healthcare facilities are overwhelmed, reaching their full capacities while exhausting resources. In response, EMTs strive to relieve the lack of resources by giving their best effort at all times.

“It’s one of those things where if everyone decides they’re not going to do it, then who’s going to do it?” said third-year Curry student Sung-ki Lee. “There needs to be people who can step up.”

Due to the University's closure, on-Grounds housing closed March 18. Some EMT students who lived on Grounds were displaced, leaving them with no choice but to find new housing. Thomas was one of these students — he had lived on the Lawn and faced challenges to obtain housing in order to continue his service in Charlottesville. Thomas prioritized his obligations to remain in the area and serve, despite the stress he encountered as every EMT is integral to the crew. 

“As a volunteer agency that is completely reliant on volunteers, we don’t have a lot of extra hands sitting around,” Thomas said. “Being here ... is much more than a contractual commitment. Our community depends on it.”

On top of their academic schedule, EMT students are constantly updated with new information, procedures and protocols to be well-equipped when encountering patients who may exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. EMT students are expected to have a keen sense of awareness and understanding of the current COVID-19 risk factors for their shifts. 

“Right now, my thoughts are a constant conflict of knowing how we have operated calls before and having to change everything about how we respond to calls now,” Thomas said. “In my five years of doing this, I have never seen this much change and this much stress in day-to-day operations.”

At times, continual exposure to this information impacts EMT students mentally, physically and emotionally. Thomas and Lee expressed how shifts can be draining as it is their responsibility to be aware and alert at all times. These situations have pushed students to their limits, forcing them to put sleep, comfort and their health to the side.

“While on duty the other night [I realized that] every call leaves you with a sense of anxiety of where you might stand on the exposure scale,” Thomas said. “It really tests the volunteer spirit ... [and] we aren’t even in the heat of it all.”

As first-aid responders, these students are tested to their fullest capacity — to see if they can be comfortable with the uncomfortable. With COVID-19 becoming a part of their daily routines, they've embraced these adversities as part of the learning process required for their future professions.

“It's not just a fluke in the journey or an accident in the journey,” Lee said. “When we sign up to enter the healthcare field — mass casualties, viruses, pandemics, heartbreaks, deaths — those are things we are signing up to experience and be a part of.”

At the end of the day, the world is fighting its hardest to find a cure and bring the spread to a halt. Park emphasized the importance of finding encouragement despite any underlying uncertainty.

“We’re not scared,” Park said. “We are careful ... We’re still trying to help people to the best of our abilities in the safest way possible — for us, too.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the EMT rescue squads as part of a University Hospital EMT department. It has been corrected to reflect that these rescue squads are affiliated with Charlottesville and Albemarle fire and rescue departments.

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