Off-duty EMS providers answer call for help from overwhelmed hospital staff

Emergency department staff were brought to tears after 14 off-duty EMS providers and nurses came to assist them


Spencer Kent
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

NEWARK, N.J. — The doctors and nurses were desperate.

Overrun with COVID-19 patients, University Hospital was stretched to its limits Saturday morning.

Off-duty Newark EMS providers answered the call for help at University Hospital, where emergency department staff were overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 crisis. A total of 14 off-duty nurses, paramedics and EMTs responded to assist the ED doctors and nurses. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
Off-duty Newark EMS providers answered the call for help at University Hospital, where emergency department staff were overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 crisis. A total of 14 off-duty nurses, paramedics and EMTs responded to assist the ED doctors and nurses. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

The emergency department staff scrambled to keep up with the crush of the sick as the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the state and nation continued to intensify. More than 150 confirmed COVID-19 patients and a few dozen suspected cases were requiring care.

University’s staff needed help, so officials from the Newark hospital started calling around, searching for additional medical personnel.

“We were pretty desperate,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital, told NJ Advance Media.

One unit answered the call.

Several members of Newark’s emergency medical services team were off-duty, and some of them had just finished a full shift of their own.

It didn’t matter.

Fourteen off-duty nurses, medics and EMTs — as well as the Northstar helicopter that transports patients to the hospital — responded.

“The call was frantic when it came through,” said Terry Hoben, Newark’s EMS coordinator, who was among those who responded Saturday.

Hoben arrived on the helicopter, which was deployed from Somerset County. It landed on University’s roof.

“The well was dry,” he said. “They couldn’t get any more to come.”

The EMS unit is responsible for the entire city of 282,000 residents, as well as Orange, East Orange and Newark airport. And Saturday, it helped save University from being overwhelmed.

“Literally everyone" who was not on duty reported, Elnahal said.

The emergency department suddenly had an influx of fresh staffers. Alongside the hospital’s staff, the EMS workers set up monitors, helped intubate patients, assisted nurses, got the critically ill to ventilators and started IVs. Some even helped clean areas of the highly trafficked ward.

“There was no job they were not willing to do that night,” Elnahal said.

The EMS members worked into Saturday evening.

Doctors and nurses, who have been pushed to their limits over the past six weeks, were in awe of the response. The EMS department has faced its own trials, as several of its members have contracted the coronavirus.

When its personnel arrived, there was a collective feeling of relief — “a sense of trust,” Hoben said.

“They were tired. They were frustrated. And when we came in, they were able to continue on with that level of care that they are known for,” Hoben said.

“Staff members were crying ... they couldn’t even form sentences," he added.

University’s emergency department staff cried not out of sadness or stress, but in reverence of those who had come to their rescue.

“The doctors and nurses who normally work in the emergency room were in tears with how helpful these guys were — in a place where they normally wouldn’t be,” Elnahal said.

Hospitals statewide have been grappling with staffing levels that can barely keep up with the surge of patients.

Like other emergency rooms, University Hospital has been battling the seemingly endless flood of COVID-19 patients over the past month. Nearly every patient at the facility tested positive for the coronavirus or is suspected of having it, pending test results.

“It’s very fast-paced down there (with) an unprecedented number of patients in the emergency room,” Elnahal said. “And those patients require a lot of attention, and what this staff did was allow us to give those patients the attention they need.”

He added: “We have been less able to get staff we need because of the extremely high load of patients, so the demand for care can’t possibly keep up with supply and staff."

Yet, the worst might be yet to come.

The apex of New Jersey’s COVID-19 cases is predicted to come in the next week or two, and health care workers are preparing for what they know will be the ultimate test.

“We are very much bracing for the peak,” Elnahal said. “The state has made clear that the peak is coming earlier than we thought. It’s likely that a week from now we’ll see the peak — that’s what the data is looking like.”

He said the hospital is making do with a limited PPE stock — it usually has only a one- or two-week supply at a given time. However, Elnahal said the hospital recently received 15 more ventilators from the national stockpile that the state was able to obtain.

The staff is making do with less, and in a time when the risk to doctors, nurses and EMS workers has never been higher.

Yet, they continue to respond when called upon.

“I’ve been a paramedic here in Newark for 34 years, and it was one of the most challenging and emotional moments I’ve seen in that time period,” Hoben said.

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©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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