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'It was just mentally exhausting.' Detroit first responders look back at first year of COVID

Posted at 4:00 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 21:33:53-05

(WXYZ) — First responders have been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus, not only helping others, but trying to stay healthy themselves.

Detroit firefighters and paramedics were among the first responders who got COVID-19 and have watched as it changed the way they do their jobs.

As COVID-19 spread through Detroit last spring, firefighters and paramedics worked non-stop.

“We wouldn’t see the station all day. It was run after run after run – all COVID,” said Detroit EMS paramedic Michael Vick.

“It was just mentally exhausting. Every call you had to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant and pay attention to everything that was going on around you,” said Detroit EMS Paramedic James Chave of the need to avoid exposure and disinfect everything patients came into contact with.

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Chave and Vick say the unknowns at the start of the pandemic were the most frightening for the families they serve – and for their own families.

“Everybody was scared, people were having actual emergencies and not wanting to go to the hospital because of the fear of contracting COVID. People were also scared of every little cough or cold they caught,” said Vick.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions at hospitals, paramedics soon realized that the moment EMS transported someone, it could be the last time a family would see their loved one alive.

“You could see the sadness in their eyes, cause they knew this might be the end. It was hard to kind of pull people away. So you tried to be as compassionate as you could,” Chave told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Chave and Vick were among the 230 employees in the Detroit Fire department who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last year.

Firefighter Tim Craft also got sick and says it was hard watching co-workers fall ill.

“Just every day seemed like somebody different [got it], or it spread through a different engine house in the city,” said Craft.

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Tragically, the fire department lost Captain Franklin Williams to COVID-19 last April and Firefighter Eddie Herbert’s 5-year-old daughter, Skylar, died from coronavirus complications.

“We’re humans too and this stuff is taking a tremendous toll on us. And as important as mental health has been in recent years, I’d like for maybe people to keep that in mind, when they think about us and they think about our profession and what we do,” said Senior Firefighter Zoser Ahmed.

Firefighters like Ahmed don’t just fight fires – they spend a lot of their days on medical runs. During the last year, Detroit Fire and EMS responded to about 58,000 COVID-related runs.

“It strengthened our bond in that we all had to deal with this fear of the unknown together every day. You come in, and you don’t know what the next run is going to be,” said Ahmed.

The pandemic has likely changed first responders’ jobs for good; the extra disinfecting and PPE are here to stay.

“I don’t think we’re ever getting rid of these masks,” said Chave.

And their commitment to the community is here to stay as well.

“The community needs us. We’re those first front-line workers, somebody has to do it, somebody has to help,” said Ahmed

“We get stopped all the time, at stoplights or anything, people just saying, ‘hey you’re doing a great job, we appreciate you.’ And it really means a lot those few words mean a lot. And we’re here for them. We do what we love, we love to help people,” said Chave.

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

Visit our The Rebound Detroit, a place where we are working to help people impacted financially from the coronavirus. We have all the information on everything available to help you through this crisis and how to access it.