FDNY EMT's mother speaks out after his suicide during pandemic
Eileen Mondello said her son, EMT John Mondello Jr., struggled with patients' deaths, said he had been bullied by senior members and believed he had contracted COVID-19 shortly before his suicide in April
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New York Daily News
NEW YORK — In the six months since her son, city EMT John Mondello Jr., took his life, Eileen Mondello has walked over the same ground again and again in search of answers.
The Astoria nurse has tried to unravel why her bright and talented 23-year-old son would cut his life short on the rocky banks of the East River.
“I’m still seeking understanding, and hopefully that will lead to acceptance because what happened was totally out of character for my son,” Mondello, 61, told the Daily News.
Her son’s death stands as another tragic cost of the pandemic. Mondello Jr., who shot himself, was one of three EMS workers to die by suicide this year.
Emergency services workers experience higher rates of traumatic stress and related afflictions than other professions. A 2018 study published in the medical journal Prehospital Emergency Care, for example, examined suicides in Arizona between 2009 and 2015 and found that EMTs die by suicide at a significantly higher rate than civilians.
In his case, Mondello Jr. was thrust into the grim early months of the pandemic soon after he left the EMS academy, and the work took a heavy toll.
He had been a football player, an actor, and a musician in high school. At LaGuardia Community College, he majored in theater. But the emergency services beckoned.
“One of the academy instructors told me my son was quote, unquote ‘out of the park,’” his mom said, referring to his potential.
But at Station 18 in the Bronx, he found himself repeatedly called to homes where the pandemic had taken a life.
“He expressed that he had a hard time facing the families of people who cardiac-arrested in their home, and that he couldn’t bring them back,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, that’s not what I learned in the Academy. I learned how to save lives.’ That was really bothering him.”
Yet Mondello Jr. was afraid to seek counseling, his mother said, because he felt it would show weakness.
Making matters worse, his mother said, was that in the weeks before his death, Mondello Jr. had complained of bullying by some senior EMTs and supervisors. In one instance, he was ordered to wash a lieutenant’s car. A senior female EMT repeatedly told him to “grow some balls."
On top of the anxiety, there was terrible insomnia, highblood pressure, a sore throat, and stomach issues. “He was a young healthy guy, no history of anxiety or mental health issues, so I couldn’t understand it,” she said.
At 4 a.m. on April 22, after a 16-hour shift, Mondello Jr. texted his mom saying, “I think I have COVID,” she said.
Mondello Jr. called in sick, apologizing to his lieutenant, who told him to stay home. The next day, he called an FDNY counselor for the first time to discuss his anxiety, his mom said.
“His self-esteem was taking a beating,” she said. “And he was ill, and I think he was totally overwhelmed.”
On the night of April 24, Eileen Mondello was caring for a patient when she was told the terrible news. She learned that her son had left home about 3 p.m. to take a walk. His body was found on the rocks by the river four hours later. He didn’t leave a note.
EMS union president Oren Barzilay said since Mondello Jr. died, the FDNY has trained about 40 EMTs in peer support since June, but that program does not include professional therapists, he said.
“The question is what do we do when there’s a mental health issue,” he said. “While it’s nice the department took a step, it’s not the right step.”
While firefighters get unlimited sick leave for PTSD, EMS members have to use vacation or sick time, he added.
Barzilay called for an investigation into the bullying issue. "This is a complete and total abuse of authority,” he said.
An FDNY official said EMS has long had peer counseling and bolstered the existing Counseling Services Unit to provide therapy to members. The official said 25% more members sought help from the unit in 2020.
The FDNY official added the hazing allegations were investigated but not substantiated. The car, the official said, was a department vehicle, thus the order to wash it was acceptable.
Eileen Mondello and Barzilay said they were never contacted as part of any investigation.
“Just the thought of him, his body, laying on the earth, it just bothered me,” Mondello said, adding, “I wanted to speak about these issues so that no other family should suffer like my family has suffered.”
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