How you can honor those who risk their lives on the front lines of this pandemic

From the beginning, there was widespread fear and misery. Paramedics, doctors, nurses and therapists saw it all. They dealt with the patients. They dealth with the families. And they knew they could catch this deadly disease.

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A nurse practitioners and therapists work on a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Hospital in April 2020.

Nurse practitioners and therapists work on a COVID-19 patient at Roseland Hospital in April 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Some paramedics ran out of surgical gowns during the pandemic and had to use garbage bags.

“They would cut three holes in the plastic garbage bags,” said Dr. Bernard Heilicser, who has been the EMS medical director for the South Cook County EMS system for 37 years.“One hole for their heads, two holes for their arms. And that’s how they would go to work.”

Paramedics from some 40 suburbs have gotten their training at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey over the years. Nothing could have prepared them for the COVID-19 epidemic.

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Maybe, someday, there will be monuments built commemorating the service of first responders during this plague.

There undoubtedly will be books and movies.

But how do you communicate the fear? The uncertainty? The depression and sadness that gripped an entire nation?

More than 500,000 dead in a year.

“In the early days,” Heilicser said, “we couldn’t even get good information from the federal government. I don’t mean to get too political, but our elected leaders were spreading false information and the CDC wasn’t doing its job due to political interference.

“You may recall we were telling people that a cloth bandanna could act as a face shield.”

Things are better now. At least paramedics are armed with better information about the disease, protective equipment is readily available and there are protocols in place on how to deal with people who call 911 to report a family member who may be showing symptoms.

And now there are vaccinations to protect not only the public, but those whom we call upon to come to our rescue.

But for months, if a family member became ill you desperately hoped that it wasn’t the killer disease. There were no treatments. So people would try to wait it out at home. Finally they would be hauled off to a hospital, where they were placed on ventilators.

Their families understood they might never see their loved ones again. There would be no final fond farewells. No holding of hands at the bedside.

There was widespread fear and misery.

And the paramedics saw it all. They dealt with the patients who were not only struggling to breathe but trying to remain brave in the face of almost certain death. They saw the agony in the faces of relatives whose lives had been shattered.

And the paramedics, the ER doctors, the nurses, all realized that they themselves might die. Worse, they worried, they might bring home this disease to their wives, children and elderly parents.

Heilicser is “so proud” of the hundreds of people he helped train through the EMS courses offered at Ingalls through the years. And he is “so pissed off” by the people who have refused to wear face masks or adequately social distance during this pandemic.

“The arrogance, the disregard for what the first responders have been facing and the suffering this has caused,” the doctor said. “I will never understand it. And then those arrogant people get sick and we treat them at the risk of our own lives and the lives of the people we love.”

Heilicser paused as if he expected an explanation from me, but I had none. I have seen the people who refuse to wear a mask or pull it down below their nose for comfort in grocery stores or restaurants. Some think they are making a grand statement.

“I don’t care who I kill,” they seem to be saying. “I will do what I want to do.”

Until we can build that monument to the people who risked everything for us, perhaps we can honor them by wearing masks in public, washing our hands, keeping a proper social distance and making sure we get vaccinated when given the opportunity.

This is no government hoax. It is science. It is our best defense. And a way to protect and honor those who have done their best to protect all of us.

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