When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, John Schretlen, 26, a newly minted emergency medical technician, immediately moved into the bunk room of the Pikesville Fire Station near Baltimore — and is still there. He’s volunteered to ride in the ambulance virtually every day, allowing other EMTs to take a back seat during the crisis. “A lot of folks at the volunteer company and at many other companies are older and have families,” he says. “But I am young and relatively healthy and I can afford the opportunity to quarantine.”
The Maryland resident completed training as an EMT last fall and was fully cleared for duty in February. “Almost the entirety of my career has been during the pandemic,” he says.
At first things were slow. But “our station is nestled among a lot of retirement homes and assisted living facilities, so it took off pretty quickly and we were in the thick of it,” Schretlen says. His first call with a COVID-positive patient was eye-opening. The middle-age patient had a dry cough and reported trouble drawing breath, but wasn’t in obvious distress when the ambulance picked him up at an urgent care center. “For the first time, I was locked in this aluminum container with someone who was coughing out this thing that everyone is scared about,” Schretlen says.
It was also the first time Schretlen witnessed silent hypoxia, a form of oxygen deprivation caused by COVID-19 pneumonia, which has emerged as one of the more vexing symptoms of the disease. Often such patients don’t appear to be in distress and don’t experience difficulty breathing, yet their oxygen levels can dip dangerously low. While normal oxygen saturation for most people is between 94% and 100%, “this guy was ‘satting’ at 82%,” Schretlen says. “Yet, he seemed completely normal.”
Despite his lack of experience, Schretlen quickly acclimated to the responsibility and has responded to hundreds of emergency calls in the last few months, many of them COVID-related — all without a paycheck. But there’s still nothing routine about his experience on the pandemic’s front line.
One case that stands out involved an elderly woman in a nursing home who was suspected of having COVID-19. The woman was unresponsive when the ambulance arrived , and she had a do not resuscitate order, which puzzled Schretlen.
When the woman was being whisked to the ambulance, a man was standing outside a few feet away and asked which room the woman had been taken from. “I was taken aback. Typically I would not give out patient information. But I told him,” Schretlen says. “He said ‘that’s my mom’ and started to cry. He was just a mess.”
The man met the ambulance at the hospital and filmed the EMTs taking her into the hospital. “I told him that she was the same but that she didn’t seem to be in any pain and that she looked peaceful.” She subsequently died. Schretlen suspects that the woman’s son requested the ambulance, despite his mother’s DNR order, because he knew it was the only way he would be able to see her with visitors being restricted from nursing homes and hospitals.
“That really reframed things for me,” Schretlen says. “It’s one thing to lose a family member, it’s another not to be with them when it happens. When I saw this guy I realized, ‘she is somebody’s mom.’ And other patients are someone else’s son or sister or father, and they are not going to be able to see this person who’s about to pass away.”
Schretlen, who has a degree in applied economics, worked stints as a management consultant and carpenter before he decided to pursue something that neither career path offered: “The opportunity to be with people, to be present with them in moments of crisis, fear or pain,” he says. His work during the pandemic has already given him plenty of that.
“My worst fear is that I will get this thing and pass it on to my mom,” Schretlen says. “And I don’t want to get it because I don’t want to be taken out of the fight.”
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New EMT Has Been Living at the Fire Station Since the Pandemic Hit originally appeared on usnews.com
Correction 08/20/20: A previous version of this story misstated the fire station near Baltimore where John Schretlen has been staying.