A fleeting friendship: Paramedic reflects on bond with COVID-19 victim Paul Cary
The Colorado paramedics lifted each other up during their deployment to New York City virus epicenter
No one told Royce Davis when Paul Cary, his friend and colleague of just three weeks, passed away – but he knew.
Cary, 66, a retired firefighter who spent 32 years with the Aurora (Colorado) Fire Department and a paramedic with Ambulnz Health out of Colorado Springs, had spent the last three weeks as part of a FEMA response team to the COVID-19 crisis to help manage the personnel shortage in New York City. He and Davis, a paramedic with the same company out of Denver, were the more seasoned members of the team, and bonded during shifts.
Arriving in the epicenter
“Us older guys, we don’t talk much about the bad things we see; we just like to talk to people,” Davis, 50, said in an interview with FireRescue1.
Upon arriving in New York, the pair assisted with Ambulnz Health’s division at the company’s headquarters in the heart of the city – a mere three-minute walk from the Empire State Building, and the country’s first virus hotspot in late March.
“They were getting hammered with transfers,” Davis said.
The crews were made up of providers from Arizona, California, Colorado, Tennessee and several other states, and volunteers had driven ambulances from agencies across the country to supplement the New York fleet as call volume continued to rise throughout the city.
Both paramedics were later subcontracted by FEMA, which scattered the volunteers to various locations, but those from Colorado made it a point to check in with each other after every shift.
“We all went our separate ways during the day, but we made sure we got dinner together and talked,” Davis said.
It was during these group meals that Davis and Royce connected.
“It was natural for us older guys just to strike up a conversation, and Paul, being the quiet guy he is – really quiet, really humble – he’d just say something funny out of the blue, or he’d look up and have this smile on his face when someone says something,” Davis recalled.
It was a true birds-of-a-feather type of moment. “That’s how the older people kind of drifted together,” he added.
Even as hospitals reached capacity and nearly 25% of city first responders were either diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined for possible exposure to the virus, Davis and Cary didn’t often dwell on the surrealness of the situation.
“Going back to that old school mentality, we wouldn’t dive into it too bad,” Davis said. “They would send a whole bunch of ambulances to this one hospital to decompress it and get the patients out to other facilities, and we’d say, ‘Man, did you see how many patients are in that ER?’ But nothing too in-depth. Like I said, we old guys don’t talk about stuff like that.”
Joyriding in the ambulance on the streets of NYC
The rigs driven in from Colorado were brand new and needed to be stocked with supplies, a task completed by Davis, Cary and other volunteers in the vast open parking lot of the New York Mets’ Citi Field. Afterward, they were let loose on the city, with a strict order from the management team not to use any public transportation – no subway, taxis or Ubers.
“They were like, ‘Nah, none of that crap. That’s how you get sick,’” Davis said.
Instead, providers piled into the back of a couple of spacious ambulances and hit the streets, but not without another warning – watch out for cops. “They were like, ‘Be careful where you park because New York cops don’t care. They will ticket you.’”
With music blaring, the rigs pulled out of Citi Field for a self-guided tour of the city, and Davis recalls watching Cary’s reaction in the moment.
“I remember [Paul] being in the back of one of the ambulances, and being quiet, like he is, and the music being cranked,” he said. “It’s not his type of music, and people are singing and having a good time. It’s New York, and they’re so excited to help out and stuff. One of our other coworkers looked over and says, ‘Are you enjoying this Paul?’ And he looked at us like he always did, with a smile on his face and said, ‘Actually, I am.’”
Laughing at the zoo
Despite responding to the most widespread crisis in the city since 9/11, Davis and Cary used their shared time to make memories and provide each other with levity during breaks.
While parked in a staging area at the Bronx Zoo one day, the duo chatted, and Davis recalls Cary shaking with laughter.
“I can’t remember what I said, but I look over and he’s just laughing. I’m like, ‘Paul, man, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you laugh that hard,’ and he’s all, ‘I haven’t laughed this hard in years.’”
A final message
After serving the city of New York for three weeks, Davis returned home to Colorado, after telling his main supervisor, “If you ever need me back, let me know.”
Just three days later, his boss called and said, “I’m putting you on a plane this afternoon back to New York.” That’s when Davis learned that Cary had tested positive for the virus and had been hospitalized.
“I didn’t even hesitate,” he said. “I packed my bags and got on that plane.”
During Cary’s stay in the hospital, many of the volunteers from Colorado felt they owed it to him to continue the work in his honor.
“I felt that I needed to stay there to a point because, when I went back, Paul was still alive,” Davis said. “I felt that it was my duty to be there for him.”
Cary’s friends and coworkers were not allowed to visit him in the hospital due to strict safety protocols. Davis attempted to text Cary and received one message in return – then, nothing else.
“I knew what was going on without being told,” Davis said. “Because of HIPAA, our bosses were very good about not telling us, even though we were trying to drag it out of them. But that text he did not respond to – I knew. It was very hard, for all of us.”
Cary died on April 30, after spending several days on a ventilator in a New York City hospital. He leaves behind two children and four grandchildren. A statement from his family said that Cary “risked his own health and safety to protect others and left his world a better place.” It continued: “We are at peace knowing that Paul did what he loved and what he believed in, right up until the very end.”
Cary’s passing was an emotional event for his coworkers. Though others in the group had tested positive, the majority were asymptomatic. The loss of their coworker highlighted the severity of the situation.
“It made us all nervous,” Davis said. “With this disease, just like the flu, you don’t know who is going to be a carrier and give it to you.”
It wasn’t for another three weeks in New York and upon returning home to Colorado for a second time that Davis felt the full impact of the loss.
“It wasn’t until the last few days when I came home that it started affecting a lot of us,” he said. “Paul’s death was the catalyst of it all, like, ‘bam.’ It really just knocked it down for all of us that are still out there.”
Honoring his memory
Cary is considered the first FEMA-deployed line-of-duty death from the coronavirus, and his contribution and sacrifice to the residents of the city did not go unnoticed.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to creating a special memorial for Cary, because while “so many people came to help … Paul gave his life for us, and we’re going to honor him in a particular way.”
At a press conference, de Blasio pointed to Cary’s willingness to help those in need, even from 1,800 miles away.
“There’s something particularly painful when someone does the right thing, when a fellow American comes from across the country to try and help the people in New York City, and while working to save lives, he gives his own life,” de Blasio said. “It’s very painful, it’s heroic, it’s something we honor, but it’s very, very painful that we’ve lost this good man.”