EMT on waiting 10 hours to offload a patient, running out of oxygen tanks, handling emotional stress

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Paramedics escort a patient from the ambulance entrance to the emergency room at LAC + USC Medical Center during a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 27, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Bing Guan

Ambulances have been barrelling through Los Angeles during this COVID-19 surge. But when they arrive at some hospitals, they often must wait, sometimes for hours, because no beds are available.

Now ambulance drivers have been told not to bring in patients with little chance of survival. And people are being advised not to call 9-1-1 unless it’s truly a life-threatening emergency.

Angel is an emergency medical technician who asked not to use his last name to avoid trouble with his employer.

He says most of his shifts are 24 hours, and can be as long as three days. More than half of calls are COVID-related.

He explains that fewer ambulances are available on the road because they spend so much time waiting to offload patients to hospitals.

“We have to wait with our patient on the gurney for hours. It could be a few hours, four hours. Sometimes longer than that. The longest I’ve waited for a bed is about 10 hours one time.”

While some hospitals have set up extra tents to make more room for patients, those fill up rapidly. “That’s every day, every week since all this started.”

When waiting for a bed to open up, does that mean waiting for an admitted patient to die? “Unfortunately that’s almost usually the case. Usually every COVID patient is at the critical level, especially I would say these past two months,” says Angel.

Among COVID patients he’s served, trouble breathing is the number one complaint, regardless of age or pre-existing health conditions.

“Some shifts, because it’s been that busy, we do run out of oxygen occasionally,” he says. When that happens, the ambulance goes out of service so it can resupply its oxygen tanks.

The job was already stressful pre-pandemic, Angel describes, and now there’s additional stress with each call due to concerns over personal safety and possibly spreading COVID-19 to family members and friends.

Angel was vaccinated last week, but he’s lost his mother from coronavirus. “Unfortunately my mom did pass away on October 29 of last year. I didn’t really think something like that could happen. Of course it’s very obvious that it can. This virus doesn’t have any prejudice to anybody. And I took every step I could to keep my family safe.”

He took his mom to the hospital because he could see she wasn’t “just normal sick.” She was there for two days, then passed away. “I saw her in the hospital and she passed afterward. And I had to suit up in a gown, goggles, gloves just to see my mother. It’s not normal."

Credits

Guest:
Angel - emergency medical technician in LA County

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser, Nihar Patel