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'I Hear The Agony': Increasing Coronavirus Cases Take Toll On NYC's First Responders


For weeks, emergency services have been racing across New York City to try to save lives. The stress of that and the growing numbers of deaths from COVID-19 takes a toll on these first responders. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang checked in with some of them, and he sends us this report.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The drive from home to her fire station in the Bronx takes only about 10 minutes for paramedic Elizabeth Bonilla. But these days, there's a lot on her mind during the commute.

ELIZABETH BONILLA: For each itch and every scratch that you have in your throat or a minor headache or a little sneeze - it could be analogy, but it's more like a fear that, could it be me? You know, could I be next?

WANG: Those questions gnaw at her at home, too, especially when she's trying to sleep between what are often 16-hour shifts. In fact, she started leaving the light on in her bedroom at night.

BONILLA: It's hard for me to fall asleep in the dark because I get the image of that lady or that man who either passed away or who was suffering. I hear the cries. I hear the agony of people suffocating, trying to breathe.

WANG: Responding to calls, Bonilla says, feels like coming face to face with a monster that's overtaken a patient's body.

BONILLA: It's almost like the virus is talking to you. As soon as you see a patient, it's like, oh, yeah, this person has the virus. They're pale in the face. Some of them are blue in the lips, blue in the fingers, blue in the toes. They are panting like a dog.

WANG: And Bonilla says it's easy to feel helpless.

BONILLA: You have just your little tools in your little bag. And most of our medications - I want to say all of our medications don't even work on the patient.

VINCENT VARIALE: This is like 9/11 happening every day.

WANG: Vincent Variale is president of the Uniformed EMS Officers Union. As of Friday, close to 14% of FDNY's workforce is out sick, including those diagnosed with COVID-19.

VARIALE: We were already understaffed to begin with, but now we have more people out sick, and we have an increase in the call volume. This is a recipe for disaster.

WANG: It's been more than a month since EMT Don Goepfert has lived with his wife and three children. They left their home in Brooklyn to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania.

DON GOEPFERT: Not the easiest choice, but the best choice. Some people are sleeping in their cars and not even going home or sleeping in the basement of where they live, so they - not to affect their family.

WANG: Living alone, though, made Goepfert extra nervous after he came home from a shift and started feeling body aches and his temperature rising. That night, Goepfert said he made sure to leave the front door unlocked in case EMTs had to get in.

GOEPFERT: I have that anxiety in me that - what if I don't make it through the next day? So I was trying to prepare for the worst.

WANG: Now Goepfert has been diagnosed with COVID-19. He was admitted into a hospital on Friday.

There is some comfort these days for paramedic Elizabeth Bonilla. It comes at 7 in the evening, before the sun sets, when shut-in New Yorkers open their doors and windows and...


BONILLA: This is nice. This is the first time I witnessed it myself.

WANG: On a night off, Bonilla used her phone to record the city's nightly salute to first responders, hospital workers and other essential workers.

BONILLA: Oh, they're doing fireworks. Look. Oh, look at that.

WANG: While she was recording this, her two sons were watching along with her. And it's because of them she's spending most of her time at home inside her bedroom alone and worried about exposing her sons to the virus she and more than 4,000 EMS workers across the city are dealing with every day.

BONILLA: We can only wish to spend unlimited time with our family, to have dinner at the table with our family and be able to share movie time and stuff like that with our children. But we don't have that option. We take it as we can.

WANG: And when Bonilla has trouble falling asleep...


YOLANDA ADAMS: (Singing) I say a prayer every night...

WANG: She turns to gospel songs, like Yolanda Adams' "I'm Gonna Be Ready."

BONILLA: It talks about, you know, just if anything, we're here to sacrifice our lives. Whatever God has planned for us, we're going to be ready.

WANG: And in her bedroom, for now, Bonilla says, she's still keeping the light on.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.