Public Employee Press: PEP Talk
EMT gets PTSD help
IT’S FREE AND CONFIDENTIAL
By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Alex Puszka is a 32-year-old Emergency Medical Technician who has been part of FDNY for four years. While his traumatic experiences during the pandemic may have scarred him for life, he has found the help he needs to continue his lifesaving work.
During the first wave of COVID-19, EMTs answered more than 7,000 calls a day. “Many times we responded to a 911 call and on scene we could tell it was COVID-19,” Puszka said. The deadly virus has killed more than 40,275 New Yorkers to date. Too often, EMTs on scene administer CPR and other life-saving treatment — only to call the time of death.
The volume of death they witnessed firsthand in the pandemic is unprecedented.
“The biggest hurdles were fear of getting sick yourself or infecting family or coworkers, having to wait on scene after pronouncing, and dealing with inconsolable kin while having to maintain my composure and professionalism,” Puszka said.
He recalled once being asleep in the ambulance when he was awakened by a 1 a.m. emergency call. An infant had stopped breathing. Puszka and his coworkers raced to the scene and worked on the child for an hour. At just five months old, the baby went into cardiac arrest and died.
“I was reliving the experience and the what ifs. In my work, every second counts,” Puszka said. That led to sleepless nights and anxiety; when combined with the isolation to protect his girlfriend and family from the deadly plague, a consuming depression washed over him.
Puszka is not alone. EMTs are struggling to overcome PTSD brought on by the pandemic, with not enough being done to address their needs. Even FDNY’s Counseling Service Unit (CSU) is unprepared to address the needs of EMTs.
Puszka tried CSU, but it did not work out. “FDNY had a licensed social worker, but they didn’t have the credentials or the equipment to help me. I was very low. I was really depressed and having flashbacks and hallucinations.”
Depression led to thoughts of suicide. “I had a gun in the home. One day I put it to my head,” Puszka said, before thinking long and hard. “I put the gun down and went for a run. By mile four, I imagined seeing people around my lifeless body.”
The lack of emotional and financial support were more than he could handle. Puszka’s take-home pay is $1,300 biweekly. Even with his girlfriend’s salary, it’s not enough to move out of his parents’ home. “I would like to start my own life, move to the next chapter, but on this salary, it looks impossible,” he said. “I feel like I cannot begin living, get married, and buy a home because I can’t afford it.”
Like other dedicated EMTs, Puszka pushed through the pandemic and his personal crisis. He continues to work 12- to 16-hour shifts, two days on, two off, with mandatory overtime.
Puszka did his own research and found a therapist who uses Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to treat PTSD. “The treatment and medication are working,” Puszka said, “It has definitely been a huge help. But realistically, why must I jump through hoops to get the help I need?”