By THOMAS TRACY
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | MAR 15, 2021
Want a roller coaster career? Buckle up with EMS.
From the start of a 12-hour shift to its end, a typical tour for the more than 4,000 New York City Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics is full of dizzying highs and stomach churning lows as crews crisscross the city responding to emergencies.
There’s no guessing what a call will bring: a mom about to give birth, a heart attack patient, a microwave-throwing maniac.
With EMS marking the 25th anniversary this week of its historic merger with the Fire Department, the Daily News captured some of the stories from a few front line warriors of what they face every day.
The child cardiac cases hit Paramedic Liana Espinal the hardest.
In her 13 years with EMS, Espinal had seen her share of tragedy, but nothing prepared her for the day when she was called to a Brooklyn home to revive a dying four-month-old baby.
“It was very intense, trying to stay calm and trying to get everyone around you to stay calm, while the child’s parents are screaming in your left ear and you’re trying to gather information and trying to keep everything going,” she said, describing the 2017 call.
The baby was unresponsive and quickly turning blue, but Espinal, 36, kept working on the tot until the child was breathing again.
“Seeing the baby go from blue to pink…it’s surreal,” she said. “I remember not crying until it was done.”
At EMS, emergencies come in all shapes and sizes and at all times, the Crown Heights native said.
“I was just sitting in my ambulance one day and this guy knocks on my window,” she recalls. “That’s when he tells me that his brother is in the car and he’s stabbed. We jumped out and provided care.”
“There is no routine day,” she said. “The minute after you log on it’s non-stop.”
There are a few perks to working in the South Bronx. For EMT Frank Vela, one is having lunch at an empanada shop known as Margarita’s.
“We’re habitual clients there,” Vela, 50, said. “We are always going there for lunch to get our empanada fix on.”
About eight years ago, Vela and his partner were dispatched on a 911 call of an elderly man having a cardiac episode in a car.
When they got there, they saw a familiar face.
“It turned out to be the owner of the empanada shop,” he recalled. “He was in cardiac arrest and we got there just in time. We had to shock him once or twice, but he made it.”
Now each time they go to Margarita’s, the owner is there, welcoming them.
“To this day he knows us by name and treats us like family,” he said. “He was so happy and thankful, but we just tell him that this is our job. This is what we do.”
“Sometimes when we’re simply driving by he comes outside and waves at us, letting us know he’s alive,” Vela said.
Then there was a time when Vela and his partner had to deliver a baby in the back of a taxi cab, he recalled.
A crowd was forming as Vela and his partner tried to get the taxi driver, a native of Africa with limited English, to help them with the delivery.
After a few grueling moments, the baby came out, crying and healthy.
“Everyone just went wild,” Vela, a 17-year veteran said. “When we took the baby out of the cab and brought him to the ambulance, they made a line and started clapping for us. That was pretty cool.”
Vela and his partner got more cheers in May 2020 when their ambulance wound up in the middle of a Black Lives Matter march passing Third Ave. and E. 149th St.
“We were following the protesters from behind when this shirtless guy with a bullhorn, a sign and some really short shorts jumped on the hood and started climbing on top of the ambulance,” he remembered. “The people were egging him on and all the protesters were coming around the ambulance and for a moment we became part of the parade.
“Finally cops got him down, but it was pretty strange,” Vela laughed.
But for every high there’s a low, he said.
Vela’s darkest day on the job was March 16, 2017, when his longtime friend and co-worker EMT Yadira Arroyo was killed by career criminal Jose Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s criminal trial is still pending as lawyers continue to debate if the diagnosed schizophrenic is psychologically fit to stand trial.
Arroyo and Vela often partnered on overtime shifts together. The morning of her death, Arroyo texted Vela and asked him if he wanted to do an overtime shift.
“I said I couldn’t because I had something to do,” he remembered. “That night I got a phone call and was told to get to Jacobi Hospital. When I got there, I saw all the ambulances.”
Arroyo’s death haunts him still; he easily could’ve been working with her when Gonzalez stole her ambulance and mowed her down in Soundview.
“It beats me up sometimes,” he said. “It’s wrong and selfish for me to think this, but it’s an innate thought that comes to my mind… if she would have been with me this would never have happened. I would have jumped on this guy and beat the s— out of him.”
Paramedic Luis Lopez has made a lot of saves during his 23 years with the department both above and below ground.
The ones underground, in transit, can be hard to shake off, he said.
“Every now and again we get called in because someone got inebriated on the train, took a wrong step and the next thing you know they’re caught between train cars, or under a train or between a train and the platform,” said Lopez, 48.
Sometimes, they are still alive.
“It’s the worst when they are so badly hurt,” the Queens paramedic said. “You have to deal with them as best as possible, for the most part just bring them to the hospital alive.”
Paramedic Carlos Lizcano joined EMS in 1993, about three years before the merger with FDNY. When he graduated the academy, he wore a green and white uniform and never knew which job — or which borough — he was headed to.
“Back in those days it was like the wild, wild west,” Lizcano, 50, remembered. “We had less units so we had a lot more responsibility. We could be sent from Brooklyn to Queens at a moment’s notice and we didn’t have a GPS, all we had was one of those Atlas maps. You got familiar with different neighborhoods in the city pretty quick.”
There was also a lot more on-the-job training.
“I delivered my first baby a few months on the job,” he said. “I was with this old timer and he had me do everything.”
“The baby’s head is coming out. I was like, ‘OK what do we do?’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, you tell me!’” he laughed. “At that moment it was really scary, but it was his way of having me learn my job.”
“The baby came and it was a wonderful thing,” he said.
After 27 years, he’s forgotten more calls than he remembers. But he’ll ever forget his first trauma job.
“Just two weeks on the job, I get called to a job where two kids were playing chicken with a train on the railroad tracks in Queens,” he said.“They both lost.”
When Lizcano arrived, the dead victims’ dismembered remains littered the tracks.
“One of the kids was split in half,” he said. “There was nothing left but mangled pieces of humanity. They felt like bags of water.”
“It was the most impactful memory I have,” he said. “I was so distraught that I had to take some time. Luckily everyone around me gave me some time to compose myself.”
In her 13-year career responding to emergency calls in Springfield Gardens, Paramedic Natasha Howard has experienced triumph and tragedy. Yet nothing prepared her for the coronavirus pandemic.
“You had no idea what was next, it was the scariest,” Howard, 35, said. “There was a lot of anxiety and at the beginning, so much was not known.”
Howard and her partner didn’t know what the next COVID call would bring, nor if they were fully protected from getting the virus themselves.
The calls kept coming.
“We would get like 10 calls a day for people needing help,” she said. “There wasn’t a second to breathe. It was a very trying time.”
Then it seemed overnight, the calls starting dropping off.
“It was weird and kind of eerie,” she said. “We went from 12 or more calls a day to no one is calling anymore.”
“We saw so much death in between. When the calls stopped, it was almost like everyone died,” she said.
As an admitted adrenaline junkie, Paramedic Lt. Patricia Luc felt she was ready for anything when she joined EMS. But there were a handful of jobs that forced her to take a step back — sometimes for her own safety.
“This lady opens this door, starts cursing, and threw an entire microwave at us,” Luc, 37, recounted about the time she and her partner responded to a call of emotionally disturbed person in Astoria. “We all cleared and nobody got hit, but it shows some of the dangers no one else is dealing with.”
The most moving day of her career had nothing to do with a 911 call.
The Queens paramedic was waiting on line at a bodega when she realized a young woman was staring at her.
“I was like, ‘Oh, God, what now?’” she said she thought.
After a few seconds, she said the young woman asked: “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Sorry, love,” Luc responded. “I don’t remember.”
“A few years ago my grandmother was very sick and you brought her back,” she replied. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
“That made me feel good,” Luc said. “It makes you want to continue on.”