Life as a Paramedic in March 2020, at the Epicenter of the Epicenter
Anthony Almojera on Death, Publicity, and a Little Unexpected Aid from... Pornhub?
By the last week of March, New York City had become the epicenter of coronavirus infection in the United States. New York State at that moment accounted for almost half of all infections in America, and most of those cases were in the five boroughs that made up the state’s largest city. Hospitals didn’t have enough ventilators or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which use mild pressure to keep a patient’s airways open and ease breathing. They didn’t have enough gowns or N95 masks. They didn’t have enough staff.
In a city of hospitals that were at the breaking point, NYC Health and Hospitals/Elmhurst was one of the worst hit. It’s a big public hospital built in the 1950s in Queens. Around the hospital are low-income neighborhoods that are home to legions of essential workers from all over the world: Colombia, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Mexico, China, the Philippines. It’s a true melting pot.
But during the pandemic, the area became a death trap. Woodside, Corona, Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst—these neighborhoods suffered more than almost any others in New York City. The official death rate in these neighborhoods was three or four times that of wealthy sections of Manhattan.
Elmhurst had become the epicenter of the epicenter. The situation in the hospital made headlines on March 25. That day, the New York Times published a video filmed by an Elmhurst ER doctor. In a shaking voice, she talked about how unprepared they were, about how the hospital was barely coping, about how they were trying to get more ventilators. Officials kept saying that things would be fine. But they wouldn’t be fine, the doctor said.
The next day, I got a call from a lieutenant at Station 46, which is next to Elmhurst Hospital. The lieutenant knew that I was trying to get the media interested in the situation facing EMS. It was frustrating to see news reports about how tough things were inside the hospitals but not about how tough things were on the street.
I’m pretty active on Twitter, so I’d been tweeting about de Blasio never mentioning us when he talked about first responders. I’d been begging for more PPE. And I’d been begging people on Twitter to stay home and keep safe. I’d tweeted @NYCMayorsOffice, @nytimes, @CNN. I’d retweeted messages of support from Andrew Gounardes, the state senator representing New York’s Twenty-Second District—southern Brooklyn.
“Anthony, there’s a ton of television crews outside the hospital,” the lieutenant said. “Dozens. You should come down. This is your chance.”
It was my day off. I was free. I could go and speak to the media as union vice president.
I called Mike Greco, the vice president of Local 2507. His union represents uniformed EMTs, paramedics, and fire inspectors. My union represents the officers—lieutenants and captains. I told him we had an opportunity to spread the word about the plight of our union members.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Elmhurst was a madhouse. A long line of people snaked up a ramp behind police barricades. They were waiting to be tested in a white tent that had been erected outside, next to the emergency area. Some of the people had waited hours and hours. Huge, smiling faces of children looked down at them from a mural on the side of the hospital. There were ambulances lined up at the entrance to the trauma center, waiting to drop patients. The hospital was now a symbol of the collapse of the health system: So many patients. Not enough testing. Not enough PPE. Not enough medical workers.
Outside the entrance of the emergency department, there was a phalanx of television cameras. It was like a red carpet for emergency medical workers, except that the gowns were made of yellow paper and the award was an unused N95 mask or a slice of pizza.
I approached the bank of camera crews. I didn’t know where to start. I’m not a shy person, but this was new to me.
Okay, Anthony, I thought. Just pick a camera.
I walked up to the closest crew. They were from Agence France-Presse. Pronounced “Ajonse Fronse-Press.” I know that now. It’s a huge news agency, but I didn’t know anything about it then. There was a female journalist. I introduced myself. “I’m Anthony Almojera,” I said. “I’m vice president of the EMS officers’ union. And I have a story to tell you.”
That was it. After the first interview, Mike peeled off. I walked down the line, introducing myself to each news crew.
“What you’re seeing on TV is not the whole story,” I said. “There’s another story out there. And it involves EMS.”
What was going on in the hospitals was also going on in the ambulances, I said. And for all the people who were dying in the hospital, many were dying before they even got there. In EMS, we saw this: People dying in their homes. In our ambulances. In the slow lines to get into the emergency departments. The numbers being published by the government didn’t take those people into account, I said.
The official death toll was frightening. The real death toll was far worse.
By the time I moved to the third news crew, there were crews from other media outlets waiting to speak to me. Channel 4, Channel 11, the BBC, CNN. Univision. The Daily News. I was on fire. For the first time in days, I felt like something I was doing was making a difference. I told the news reporters how the lack of supplies inside the hospitals was mirrored in EMS, about how four hundred members were out sick with suspected cases of coronavirus and how the rest were run ragged. A couple of days later, I drove up to Yonkers to see Mike Sullivan. I had a couple of television interviews to do using video apps like Zoom, and Mike was going to help me look as professional as possible.
At the time, Mike coordinated the FDNY’s advanced-life-support operations in the Bronx—he managed all the paramedic crews and kept track of supplies and training.
But what I needed at that moment was not Mike the Medic; I needed Mike the Actor.
Mike had a basic setup at home for recording auditions: a tripod and a ring light, a plain backdrop. He’d suggested that I come over to his apartment to do the interviews; he would make me look like I knew what I was doing.
I was becoming a one-man EMS publicity department. FDNY administrators, meanwhile, were putting all their energy into making firefighters look good. They lined up fire trucks outside emergency departments to cheer health workers. They were following the lead of ordinary New Yorkers, who had started to applaud and bang pots every night to thank first responders.
New Yorkers were doing other things too, like putting up handwritten thank-you signs and rainbows in windows and offering free coffee to first responders at diners. It was touching and it lifted our spirits—everybody’s spirits, I think.
The FDNY clapping went over very well with the public. What people didn’t realize was that the reason New York’s Bravest had time to clap for health workers was that they had been instructed not to respond to COVID calls. They were sitting on the sidelines while we ran into people’s houses.
Mike and I hadn’t seen each other since the pandemic hit. We hadn’t had any time, and we worked and lived at opposite ends of the city. But we’d been checking in with each other every day. We always do. A text, a call. Angie does that too if we don’t cross paths at work. Other people check on their parents or their kids or whoever they care about most. That’s what we were doing.
I had come straight from work. “Man, you look worn out,” Mike said. He set up the light and the tripod. I recorded an interview with Ali Velshi from MSNBC. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of looking straight at the interviewer. I was distracted by my own image on the screen and my eyes kept darting to the left. But I said what I need to say. Velshi brought up the EMS pay issue. I talked about attrition.
“You want twenty-year people,” I said. “To be training new people and to be treating you and your families. Unfortunately, with the way this city is treating EMS, that’s not the case.”
After the Velshi interview, I was invited to go to the CNN studio and talk to Poppy Harlow. A morning news show! This was big.
For the interview, I wore a dark gray EMS jacket and a light blue EMS shirt. I had worked a double shift the day before. I had hardly slept. I looked like I’d been hit by a truck. But that was authentic. No point looking healthy and well rested when you’re representing a group of people who are on their knees. I described the call to Sheepshead Bay, how I couldn’t comfort the guy who lost his wife. My voice cracked. How was that man? I wondered. Had he made it? Was he watching?
Help came from unexpected places. One day in the middle of the mayhem, three men knocked on the door of the station. They ran a pharmacy in Sunset Park, and they had made hand sanitizer. They brought boxes of it, piled on the sidewalk. They wanted to donate it to us. We led the guys into the apparatus floor. They were from Chennai in southern India. We talked about India. We huddled together for a photo.
The men from Chennai weren’t the only ones who helped out. Pornhub, the internet porn site, donated fifteen thousand masks to EMS and thousands more to other first responders in the New York area. I have no idea why Pornhub decided to help us. Probably good publicity. After all, who knew better than Pornhub the importance of personal protection? But the fire department wasn’t amused, and I could understand why. It said a lot about the fire department’s incompetence that an internet pornography company had to bail us out.
Toward the end of March, Station 40 had a bit of karma. Karma on a motorbike.
My phone rang. It was Jose Rosario. “Anthony, I’d like to come and feed the station houses,” Jose said.
Jose was the president of a motorcycle club, the Hustle Kingz. He was a big, round guy with a goatee. He’d grown up in the industrial section of Sunset Park. The bikers were mainly city employees. They did ride-outs for breast cancer, autism. They could distribute food, he said.
Jose was dating Sol-Luz, who’d gone to my elementary school. In June 2019, I bumped into Sol and Jose in the emergency department at Lutheran Hospital. It was around the time of Joe’s retirement party. Jose had skidded on wet leaves and crashed his Kawasaki. He was banged up, but not too seriously. I walked Jose over to one of the emergency department nurses, told her that he was a friend, and asked her to take care of him. After that, we stayed in touch.
“There’s a lot of restaurants that are closed,” Jose said over the phone. “They need people to cook for. And you guys are going through the most difficult time in your history.”
True. The crews were eating every meal in the ambulance or at the station. Many of the local restaurants were closed. Nobody had time to cook. Nobody had time to shop, especially not when lines at stores were going around the block. Plus, some EMTs felt uncomfortable going into stores in uniform. They felt that the store owners feared they were contaminated.
“Do you really think you can pull this off?” I asked Jose. “Watch me,” he said.
A few days later, very early, Jose arrived at Station 40 with a big spread: Bagels, butter, cream cheese. Croissants. Orange juice, coffee. His bikers had pooled their money and reached out to a local spot called Sunset Bagels. And here they were, with a breakfast fit for a king. Or a hungry EMS worker.
After that, Jose organized meals for other stations. A motorcycle stunt rider with restaurant connections hooked him up with cooks around the city. Jose asked for donations from his friends, from bikers, from people he’d known when he worked security for rap artists, from Instagram connections. Whoever he could reach.
A seafood restaurant in Queens delivered food to EMS stations there. A keto chef in East New York cooked for the stations nearby. A former workmate of Jose made oxtail stew. For a month, give or take, Jose took food to EMS stations in every borough, all of it delivered by men and women on huge, shiny motorbikes. The Brooklyn cavalry had arrived.
From the book RIDING THE LIGHTNING by Anthony Almojera. Copyright © 2022 by Anthony Almojera. To be published on June 7, 2022 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.