Fla. county's Paramedic of the Year describes transporting county's 1st COVID-19 patient
Manatee County Paramedic Sherri Pellien described the fear and uncertainty in dealing with the then-new virus last March
The Bradenton Herald
MANATEE, Fla. — Manatee County Paramedic Sherri Pellien was working last March, as the coronavirus pandemic first hit the county, when the first COVID call came in over the radio.
"When the call came in, everything just kind of stopped," Pellien said. "All of the higher ups were alerted, including the health department and doctors. We were like what are we going to do? How are we going to do this? We really didn't have a solid game plan of how we were going to transport this person. So we go to the house and we stage and we're still trying to call to figure out how we were going to treat him. Thankfully, he wasn't critical."
The 50-something year old man would survive his battle with COVID, but he didn't think he would.
"Once we figured it out, it was kind of scary because no one really knew what this virus was," Pellien said. "I talked to him on the way to the hospital and found out what his symptoms were. He really thought he was going to die. He said it got so bad, he didn't feel like he could breathe. He just thought there were some days he would be better off dead."
Pellien said his words about he felt scared her because he was otherwise a healthy looking individual.
Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was only recommending that health care workers wear safety glasses, gloves and a mask. As the pandemic progressed, the guidance went to full, heavy safety gear and then kind of cycled back to the glasses, gloves and masks.
Justin Woods began his EMT career five years ago this July. A son and grandson of firefighters, Woods grew up around public service and the family philosophy of helping others.
"Toward the beginning, it was very stressful," Woods said. "People didn't know a lot about COVID. They didn't know exactly what it was. How it would affect people and how it would affect them long term. There was no real understanding yet what caused it. There was a lot of confusion to it."
Woods said every call received in the early weeks of the pandemic "was extreme for everybody. Is this COVID? Is there potential for it? Are they an asymptomatic patient and still have it? So there was a lot of stress with that just in how to plan, how to prepare and limit exposure. Making sure everything was right so there wasn't potential of spreading the virus from one patient to the next."
Woods and Pellien were recently named Manatee County's EMTs of the Year for 2020.
Last year was no ordinary year and to receive this peer-awarded recognition humbled them both. That's not an easy thing to accomplish for two heroes who are already humble enough to reject any notion of being a hero.
"It was a complete shock," Woods said. "Everyone worked hard. 2020 was not a year for anybody. I'm very appreciative my peers selected me and viewed me as having gone above and beyond, but truly, my honest feelings, I did nothing that anyone else hasn't done. We all put in the work. Everybody stepped up to the plate."
Pellien, who started her career later in life to raise a family first, has been with the county EMS for 18 years.
"It caught me off guard," she said. "I was pretty shocked. I was very overwhelmed that my peers selected me. We all work together and all come together for the main purpose, which is the safety of our patient. I do love my job. There hasn't been a day in 18 years that I said, 'Gosh, I don't want to go to work.' I like the adrenaline rush."
Pellien knew what she wanted to do for a living since she was a teenager.
"I always loved the medical field," she said. "I was chasing ambulances when I was a teenager."
The life of an EMT is certainly never boring and both said the best part of their jobs are meeting amazing people. But they don't always get to meet those they care for, and in many cases, those they save from death.
Both Woods and Pellien said the most memorable moments are the times they answer a cardiac arrest call, especially the first one.
"The most memorable is, and probably for most of us, is that first cardiac arrest call and you get a pulse back," Woods said. "To know that someone you found dead, clinically dead, and you brought them back is pretty special. Just meeting someone you truly changed and the result of what you did was that the outcome was life."
There are times of levity amid all the chaos and seriousness of their field. For these two award-winning EMTs, their funniest moments both involved a little bit of nudity.
"I was still a volunteer at the time and was really new to this," Pellien said. "This poor old man in a plastic resin chair, not equipped for the shower, but he's using it as a shower chair. He fell through the chair and he could not get out. He was not in pain, but we had to use bolt cutters to cut the chair off so he could get out."
For Woods, it was an accidental medical alarm that was set off by a woman in the shower.
"So we get there and she was walking around the house completely naked," Woods said. "So we asked her if she had a robe we could get her and she said, 'Oh yeah, I have one, but I don't wear it. I'm a nudist so it's OK.' She just kept going about her day like everything was completely normal."
The EMT of the Year Award is given to employees who have gone above and beyond in their overall duties over the course of a year. For a year like 2020, that's saying a lot.
"Sherri and Justin continue to impress me by going above and beyond their duties at Manatee County EMS," said EMS Chief James Crutchfield. "These awards reflect the endless hours they have spent keeping the community health and safe while serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic."
(c)2021 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)