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NYC Paramedic Describes Holding ‘Ad Hoc Wake’ in Ambulance for Coronavirus Victim; ‘I’ve Never Seen so Many People Die in One Shift’ George W. Contreras, M.E.P., M.P.H., M.S., CEM, FAcEM

So on this street corner in New York City, in the middle of the night, I decided to allow the family to say their final goodbyes right there in the back of the ambulance. I never thought my ambulance would become an ad hoc funeral home and be the site for a wake in the middle of the night. It doesn’t offer any closure. It made me well up. A wave of emotions came over me. I’ve seen people that live in homes, live in small apartments, multi-generational households. From young kids to their parents to the grandparents, all living in small quarters. I’m taking care of this person who’s really, really sick — and there are about 12 or 15 other people who have been pretty much not practicing, or not able to practice, social distancing. All those people who die on a daily basis — each one is not just a number. Each one is a person, and that one person will have had a huge impact on the inner circle of their family and friends, which could be 100, 200, 500 people.

Photo Credit: Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News

I’ve been a paramedic for a private hospital in New York City for 30 years, but until COVID-19, I’ve never seen so many people die in one shift, day after day.

You have to put up a kind of wall to help you, but at the same time, this has become extremely overwhelming, mentally, for healthcare workers, including the city EMS.

Paramedics give medication, start IVs, intubate. What has really changed after we do all that, and we do CPR and there has been no change in the patient, is we have the grim duty of declaring the person dead at home. We had a gentleman recently who had been sick, COVID-19 positive for two weeks. He wanted to stay home and refused to let his family call 911. Finally, the day came: He was short of breath — he could barely breathe. His family called 911. We got there, he stopped breathing. He had lost his pulse. We worked on him feverishly. He did not survive and he died in the back of our ambulance. This gentleman was probably about 70, with a very close-knit Latino family. We had about 20 people surround the ambulance because they knew we were working on their family member. I had the responsibility to tell them we did our best, but that he had died. At that moment, I realized because this person died in my ambulance, the next step for this family, for this patient, was going to be the city morgue. This was going to be the last time that family was going to see that person for another two weeks, if that. They were distraught.


There’s a very human aspect to this, what they called the “invisible enemy.” But it’s not very invisible when you deal with it on a regular basis. As appeared in New York Daily News on April 29, 2020.