Chirlane McCray’s COVID-19 trauma program left out EMTs

By Julie Marsh | New York Post | September 15, 2020

During the height of the city’s coronavirus pandemic in April, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray went on CNN to decry the high rate of suicide attempts by Emergency Medical Service workers — nearly six times that of the general population.

She pledged to help the first responders by teaching them combat stress management tactics through a new city-run program called HERO-NY — nearly five months later, not a single one of the city’s 3,700 FDNY EMS workers have received the training.

During that time at least three EMTs have committed suicide.

“These past six months have been really a life-changing event for my men and women,” Oren Barzilay, head of the union that represents FDNY EMTs and paramedics, told The Post.

“Their work environment changed from ordinary rescues to a war-zone environment where they were just seeing people in their death beds or on their way to deaths. They need trauma specialists that deal with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They need battlefield psychiatrists to deal with what they’ve seen and nothing has been provided to us. Nothing after numerous requests,” Barzilay said.

One Bronx-based paramedic who spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity citing a fear of retribution by city officials, said, “It’s a department-wide trauma that everyone is suffering and no one has considered the emotional toll.

“The city has just turned a blind eye and there’s no accountability for the fact that there’s been no help,” he said.

On April 29, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, McCray, announced the HERO-NY program in conjunction with the Department of Defense that would train 1,000 health care workers in combat stress techniques.

The city’s public hospital system, Health + Hospitals, has trained 380 staffers and the Greater New York Hospitals Association has sent information to various city agencies, but an FDNY spokesman said there have still not been any sessions for their workers.

“The program is available, but we don’t push programs,” an FDNY spokesman told The Post.

Brian Conway, a rep for Greater New York Hospitals Association that managed the program citywide, said McCray’s embattled $1.25 billion mental health plan, ThriveNYC, was also sent HERO-NY information.

“Nobody at ThriveNYC ever said, ‘How can we help?’ They know we have this issue. They know that PTSD is a major factor,” Barzilay said.

McCray’s spokeswoman Chanel Caraway confirmed that ThriveNYC hasn’t counseled anyone in combat stress management, claiming that the trainings were the responsibility of Health+Hospitals.

And H+H rep Stephanie Guzman said that while 681 staffers from her agency were scheduled to complete the program by the end of the year, the public hospital system was not involved in efforts to help city employees from other departments.

Despite Caraway’s claim that neither ThriveNYC nor McCray are in charge of HERO-NY, that did not stop the first lady from taking credit for its work during a virtual conference hosted by Mental Health America on Sept. 4.

“We were able to help our health care workers who were traumatized,” McCray said at the event. “We at least had structures in place to give people the kind of attention they needed.”

Gary Miller, a 32-year EMS veteran who retired as a captain in July, said he knew nothing of any efforts by McCray.

The lack of help for his colleagues spurred him to become a director of the EMS FDNY Help Fund that provides confidential professional help to first responders.

“I think the availability of counseling is the most important thing,” Miller said, adding, “The psychological emotional toll” of handling COVID-19 calls “is just unbelievable.”

Clinical psychologist and national trauma expert Dr. Isaiah Pickens said EMTs are particularly at risk for self-harm because there’s a “high level of hopelessness around both the trajectory of the pandemic, but also a sense of helplessness around the pandemic to help people and save lives.”

He said the city’s leadership should simply ask EMS workers, “What are the areas where we can help you feel supported?”

Additional reporting by Craig McCarthy.