EMS faces pandemic challenges, remembers 9/11

  • Sunshot by Michael Hall - Paramedic T.J. Brister climbs into the driver’s seat of an ambulance to head out to a call last week at the Hart County EMS headquarters.
    Sunshot by Michael Hall - Paramedic T.J. Brister climbs into the driver’s seat of an ambulance to head out to a call last week at the Hart County EMS headquarters.

T.J. Brister wasted no time last week transitioning from being interviewed and into action as a paramedic.
His partner emerged from the 911 dispatch room in the back of the emergency medical services headquarters, announced there was a call and Brister immediately loaded up in an ambulance and was gone in less than than a minute.
It’s all part of the daily routine for emergency medical technicians and paramedics working for Hart County, which handles emergency medical calls in the county and city of Hartwell.
On the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a moment which showed first responders everywhere how important their jobs are and also how dangerous they can be, paramedics like Brister are battling a new, invisible enemy in COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic continues to present new challenges, he said.
The personal protection equipment provided by the state that EMS personnel must wear during potentially coronavirus-related calls is part of those challenges. He wants to rush right into a house where someone is having a medical emergency, but if virus exposure is a possibility, he and his colleagues must first don the PPE. That can be difficult to explain to the loved one of someone in need when they want immediate care.
“It can be tough to explain when we have to take extra time to put on the PPE, because their loved one is in there who is short of breath, or has a fever,” Brister said.
Hart County EMS director Mike Adams, also a paramedic, said each of his crew members knows the dangers associated with the pandemic, but that will not stop them from doing their jobs.
“We have to be more cautious, of course,” Adams said. “It’s what we signed on for. Those of us who have been here a while, we’ve been through the AIDS epidemic, the flu every year, so it’s an extension of that.”
Complicating matters are the constantly changing guidelines from public health officials, Adams said.
“The lack of good information makes it a little different this time around,” Adams said.
But like he and other EMS folks around the country realized following 9/11, first responders will work together to tackle whatever challenges present themselves.
“(Sept. 11) still does have a lot of meaning,” Adams said. “You still mourn those we lost, but it showed us how the country can pull together, how people can pull together.”
While not much changed in day-to-day life in Hartwell following the attacks, Brister, who is 37, said they remind him that every day, anything can happen. He has crawled into crumpled cars after a crash to administer care while firefighters cut the car open to free him and the patient. He has seen disturbing things and has dealt with loss on a scene.
All it would take is one devastating event to change his own life, Brister said.
“This afternoon, any one of us could go out and run our last call,” Brister said. “Just like all of us here, none of them (in 9/11) thought that was their last day at work when they woke up that day.”
It all takes its toll psychologically, but EMS personnel have to learn how to cope with what they see. He admits sometimes, on days off, an image from a call will pop into his head, or perhaps some doubt about a decision made on scene.
But there are plenty of other instances that show the true impact of the job he does. Brister has seen people he cared for on calls out in public and they thank him for his help. Seeing them there, alive, with their families, makes everything worth it, he said.
“It’s such a great feeling when you get to help someone in that life-and-death moment,” Brister said. “I’m a Christian, and for me, I can be a tool for God to help save someone’s life. That’s such a cool thing, such a cool feeling. For me, that’s a driving force in the job. It’s so rewarding to see someone spending time with their kids because me and my partner did our jobs.”
And that is what drives them, Adams said.
“It’s just about helping people,” said Adams, who has been on the job for more than 30 years after starting as a volunteer firefighter. “We’re trying to help the community as best we can.”