Darien teen EMTs follow 'calling' on front lines of coronavirus pandemic

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DARIEN — In normal times, Steve Olvany is not overly concerned when his 16-year-old daughter Kelsey works a shift as a volunteer emergency medical technician.

These are far from normal times.

When the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, Olvany said he became “very nervous” about his daughter going on calls for Darien EMS-Post 53. He was worried she would come in direct contact with those who may have the virus.

“My wife and I told her she couldn’t do it,” Olvany said.

Olvany’s wife is a registered nurse at an assisted living facility.

The Olvanys kept Kelsey on the sidelines for two weeks.

Then, Kelsey — a junior at Darien High School who has recently been promoted to the vice president of student affairs at Post 53 — asked her parents for permission to return to the job she loves.

She told them the lifesaving work is “‘a calling,’ and it’s what she wants to do,” said Olvany, who serves as the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission chairman.

“I’m proud of my kid,” he said.

So, they gave her permission to return, and she has returned to the squad.

Olvany said he trusts the protocols that Post 53 and its executive director, Joe Larcheveque, have established to keep its young adults safe.

“My wife has been in a lot of contact with Joe about precautions,” he said, adding he trusts Kelsey’s judgment, as well as Post 53’s resources and equipment.

Olvany said he knows Kelsey is taking a risk of contracting the virus when she’s on the job.

“When you go skiing, you are afraid you will fall down the hill and get hurt,” Olvany said. “You are afraid when you go on the ambulance, that something is going to happen. The only difference is this time, you are going down a black diamond versus a bunny hill.”

It is a risk the entire household shares.

“We are a family of six,” Olvany said. “If she gets sick, the whole house gets infected.”

Testing positive

Another 16-year-old member of Darien EMS-Post 53 did recently get sick — and tested positive for the coronavirus.

The teen — whose name is being withheld — does not know how the illness was contracted. But the case was a mild one. Symptoms consisted of a fever up to 101 and a headache.

Since test results came back from Norwalk Hospital, the teen and family have been in quarantine at home. The fever went down with Tylenol and the teen plans to return to work at Post 53, upon full recovery.

Larcheveque said the Postie who had the virus was quarantined for 14 days. Larcheveque also said he does not think the member got it from work.

When the member tested positive, Post 53 traced back to anyone who was in contact with the member. They were advised of the exposure. None of them have shown any symptoms or gotten sick.

Larcheveque said Post 53 members go on about two suspected COVID-19 calls a day, but they take the patients to the hospital and it isn’t guaranteed they will find out the result.

He said Post 53 has had a handful of responses from the hospital when a positive result comes back, but no concrete statistics.

Because they don’t always know, they use COVID-19 precautions for every call, he added.

Being a “Postie”

Kelsey said she’s “honored” to be a “Postie,” as they are known in town, and to be able to do the job.

“The pandemic did not change anything. All high school students are still on calls, ready to serve their town, just as they were trained,” she added.

Founded in 1970, Darien EMS-Post 53 volunteers take 140 hours of classroom study and more than 20 hours of practical training. Post 53’s 16-year-olds take the Connecticut State examinations for basic level EMT certification. There are 20 EMS volunteer high schoolers per grade.

The teens who volunteer for Post 53 are, essentially, “doing it all,” said Thomas Ostberg, 17, who is president of Darien EMS-Post 53

“We are talking to the patient, seeing what is going on, taking vital signs, initiating treatment, talking to the family, bringing the patient into the ambulance and getting them to the hospital,” he said.

The high school EMTs drive the ambulance as well.

“We go through an extensive driver-training program with a lot of checks in place to make sure we are completed, prepared, and suited for that position,” Thomas said.

Adults also play a role. Adult adviser volunteers, who are all certified EMTs, respond to every call. Medics in town also get involved, but only respond to the most serious calls the EMTs receive, according Thomas.

For example, if someone is experiencing chest pain, a medic is needed. However, if someone fell out of bed in the middle of the night and needs help getting back into bed — which is called a lift assist — no medic needed, Thomas said.

Changes since COVID-19

“As soon as the pandemic hit, we changed our protocols a lot to make it safer for all the members,” Kelsey said.

One protocol that was changed is the number of people sent when responding to a call.

“There are usually four volunteers: the rider, the extra, the driver and the EMT,” Kelsey said. “However, to limit the number of people who might get exposed to the virus, now we just send the driver and the EMT.”

Calls on which someone may have the virus have been “very common,” Kelsey said.

“I went on two possible calls where there may have been coronavirus exposure on my recent 24-hour shift,” she said.

The dispatcher lets the EMTs know ahead of time if the patient has symptoms of the virus, which include fever, cough, and shortness of breath; if they traveled recently or came into contact with someone who tested positive.

If the answers to any of those questions is yes, “then we take that extra step with goggles, eye protection, face shields, N95 respirators, surgical masks and protective gowns,” she said.

She added, however, that EMTs wear a mask on every call, as well as maintain social distance.

Call volume

Thomas said while he’s typically on duty about 24 to 48 hours a week, at the peak of the outbreak, he had been on duty much more frequently — as much as three to four days a week, working about 96 hours a week.

“On average, we have about three calls a day,” he said. Over the past month, however, the call volume had been up very high, according to Thomas.

There was one week when he went on seven calls within 24 hours, and about three or four people had symptoms of the virus.

However, that was the maximum number of calls Thomas received on duty, he said. In the past week, the call volume has slowed down significantly, and there has been very few calls — about one every day, he said.

In light of the pandemic, he said he has not been nervous on the job.

“I trust the cleaning process, the PPE [personal protective equipment] that we wear, and all of the precautions we take to keep us safe,” he said.

Extra precautions are now being taken to ensure the ambulance is clean and safe for the next patient, according to Thomas.

“When we bring someone to the hospital from the ambulance, we use disinfecting wipes and sprays. We disinfect the whole ambulance, wiping it down, and remaking the stretcher,” he said. “Then, back at headquarters, we will clean the ambulance all over again.”

Serving the community

Caring for people and volunteering has always been something “that is in my blood,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey’s uncle is also in public service in town, and has been her inspiration for becoming an EMT, she said.

“My uncle, Mark Cappelli, is a youth division detective for the Darien Police Department,” she said. “He was a part of Post 53 as well when he was my age, and was a very dedicated member, serving as vice president of operations.”

For the town of Darien, having high schoolers respond to 911 calls is the “reality,” according to Kelsey.

High school volunteer Tate Hanson said he’s “so happy that I can volunteer with Post 53.”

“Everyone there is really dedicated and proud to be able to serve the Town of Darien,” he added. “It’s especially good to do something helpful during the pandemic.”

Tate said he sometimes wonders about what happens to the patients after he responds to them on calls.

“Based on my experience helping people in emergencies, I’m hoping to be a trauma surgeon,” he added.

According to Kelsey, what is not always realized is that “the type of people that respond to the doorsteps of our community are so different from the first responders around the globe. The members of Post put in so much hard work, dedication, training, and heart to serve the community with the best quality pre-hospital care,” Kelsey said. “There is so much behind the scenes that go into the types of EMTs we produce. Unlike many paid EMTs, young adult members of Post have to balance school, sports, family, extracurriculars and teenage life with our additional responsibilities. It is not easy living in the unthinkable, but I can guarantee it is worth it.”

Kelsey continued: “Post gives you a sense of maturity, dignity, and pride that cannot be found elsewhere. It is a privilege to be a Postie. Others put their faith and trust in our hands, and we do what we are taught to do best — care.”

Additional reporting by Susan Shultz