First responders, medical professionals weigh in on COVID-19 emotional toll

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- "This is the face of EMS," says Tom Eisenbraun, as he wore a mask and face shield. Eisenbraun is an advanced scope paramedic at Superior Ambulance Service, and has been in EMS for 42 years.

The emotional toll of COVID-19

COVID-19 affects nearly every aspect of life, but the emotional toll it takes on first responders is significant.

"When this started there was apprehension," he says. "Because we were getting week-to-week, sometimes day-to-day advisories about how to approach situations."

Eisenbraun believes some of the recent COVID-19 protocols will stay in place for good. "When I started in the profession it was before the AIDS epidemic came out. We weren't required to wear gloves. And after that it was a standard procedure."

He says they are equipped with PPE, but the emotional toll is what gets to them. "We're also concerned about our families. We don't want to bring anything home to our wives, kids, parents, grandparents or siblings."

NIU's Clinical Psychologist Michelle Lilly is specialized in first responder PTSD. She says COVID-19 will not be considered a traumatic event, but the sudden loss of loved ones can fall into that traumatic category. Either way, she says the mark it will leave on first responders is substantial.

"What we know is that the chronic level of stress over and over again can take a toll not only on us psychologically but also physically," says Lilly. "The more that people avoid stress, the more that they avoid things that are stressing to them, then the more distress you have. This is really challenging people[s] ability to cope."

Lilly runs a 911 recoveries website, and says she's seen an increase in high level stress calls.

Coping is a priority at SwedishAmerican Hospital as first responders on the inside feel the impact, too.

"There was a clear deterioration of the staff's ability to cope with the intense kinds of cases that COVID [19] is," says Norm Shirk, LCPC, who is the Director of Pastoral Services at the hospital. In response to those stressors, they opened a relaxation center for hospital employees.

"Some of them became fearful and rightly so, and have felt the stress a little extra," he explains. "We just wanted to find a way to take care of them like they take care of our folks. It's essentially taking care of the caregivers."

Shirk offers advise for anyone struggling during this unparalleled time. "When you are feeling like you've just about spent everything you have, you need to pay attention to that, and not be heroic for one minute more," he says. "Except to your own self and your own needs, which means pausing getting away, sitting down and taking a deep breathe."