28 straight workdays, 12-hr shifts: GR medics fought COVID in NY

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan hospitals have received much-deserved recognition for their efforts amid COVID-19, but this week the spotlight shines on those who provide critical prehospital care.

It’s National EMS Week, an observance created in 1974 by President Gerald R. Ford to celebrate the important, life-saving work of emergency medical professionals. 

News 8 had the opportunity to sit down with two Grand Rapids-based EMTs who traveled to New York City to help at the coronavirus outbreak’s peak.

“Especially in the beginning, with the call volume being as high as it was, they were very overwhelmed,” recalled Shannon Huizenga, an EMT with American Medical Response.

AMR, which provides emergency services in communities across the country, holds a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and provided aid during the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina and the mass shootings in Las Vegas.  

The Grand Rapids operation sent 22 EMTs to New York City, some of whom were still there Wednesday. 

“We were there for the peak,” Huizenga said.

She and her Grand Rapids co-worker, paramedic Michelle Gebben, left for New York March 30 and returned to Grand Rapids April 28.

“The first two weeks were, I think, the roughest point they had,” Huizenga said. “We provided them with a lot of much-needed relief. We worked 28 days straight.”

Huizenga and Gebben worked 12- to 14-hour shifts daily, but by the time they shuttled to and from the hotel, their days lasted 16 to 18 hours. 

The pair spent much of their time moving patients to and from the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which had been set up as a temporary care facility to relieve pressure on the city’s health care system.  

“Nearly all of our patients had COVID-19,” Gebben said. “Some of them were fairly stable. Others were very critical and on ventilators.” 

The women said while they were initially a bit nervous about potential COVID exposure, the hardest part of the experience was actually seeing patients struggle in isolation.

“The biggest stressor in New York, I think for both of us, was the patients not having family with them, especially the very critical patients and the patients who didn’t make it. They were alone,” Huizenga explained.

The women tried to fill the vacuum created by the no-visitor rules.

“Trying to be as supportive as possible, both on the medical side of things, but also from just a personal standpoint because families and visitors aren’t allowed with these patients,” explained Gebben. “So they’re dealing with very difficult situations on their own. So we tried to offer some sort of comfort to them, which being in all the personal protection equipment made that a little more challenging than it typically would be.”

Gebben and Huizenga both said while the days were long and stressful, they would go again in a heartbeat.  

“Just to participate in something that large that had never been done before, to go to a place that needed our help, it was a great experience. It was definitely unique. Something we will never forget,” Huizenga said.

“It’s a calling. God created me with a passion for critical situations, the ability to think clearly through emergencies and the resiliency to not carry that trauma with me,” Gebben said.

Huizenga echoed Gebben’s explanation, calling her own ability and willingness to run to danger when others retreat her “gift.” 

“I always say that I don’t ever want anyone to be sick or to be injured, but if that happens, I want to be there,” Gebben said.

While COVID-19 prompted the cancellation or delay of annual events recognizing National EMS Week, a West Michigan restaurant owner stepped forward to make sure emergency workers know how much they’re appreciated.

Jenna Arcidiacono, owner and chef of Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park, northwest of Grand Rapids, has been donating food to front-line workers since the outbreak began. Mike Rowe even honored her efforts on his online reality show, “Returning the Favor.”

This week, Arcidiacono is feeding emergency medical professionals, including workers at AMR, LIFE EMS, Rockford Ambulance and the Plainfield Township Fire Department.

“I would never want their job, ever. I don’t think I could handle it. So I want them to know that they’re appreciated beyond belief, especially this week because it’s the week to celebrate them. We wanted to honor them, so we’re looking forward to feeding them,” Arcidiacono said.

**Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed some quotes by Gebben and Huizenga. The attributions have been fixed. We regret the error.

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