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BENNINGTON — When the 11 American Medical Response emergency management techs and paramedics showed up at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center on Dec. 17 — their 54th deployment to help COVID-overwhelmed hospitals around the nation — the relief among the Bennington hospital staff was so stark it brought some to tears.

“When we walked into this hospital on the first day, the staff started crying,” said Kara Johnson, a flight paramedic who oversees the AMR teams in Vermont that are providing staffing relief to SVMC, Rutland Regional Medical Center and Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. “They knew we were here to help.”

Johnson, who is from Mississippi and Arkansas (and joked that her clothes are all “plugged in” and heated here in Vermont’s winter), said it’s the same wherever the teams go. Hospitals and their staffs are overwhelmed with COVID-19 caseloads, in addition to caring for the non-COVID patients.

And the prognosis is dire — with caseloads expected to surge after the holiday season, in large part because of the highly transmissible omicron variant. Having the six paramedics and five EMTs come from around the country and ask how they can help can be emotional.

Pam Duchene, chief nursing officer and vice president for patient care services at SVMC, said the hospital is caring for 11 COVID patients, three of those in the ICU. She said when the hospital learned the AMR team was coming, they changed the patient arrangement to cluster the COVID patients in the ICU and the Two West section of the hospital, making it easier for Johnson and her team provide their care.

In addition, rather than follow current practice to allow the ICU patients to remain in that unit until discharge, SVMC now moves those patients out to other locations in the hospital when possible, to free up ICU beds for COVID patients who need oxygen and other high-level care. The goal is to ensure SVMC has enough ICU beds available to meet the needs of the COVID surges.

And like hospitals across the state and nation, a post-holiday surge, driven also by the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID, is virtually assured.

“This is a surge of the unvaccinated,” Duchene said.

She said the AMR folks have been a huge help. They are trained on the medical equipment like ventilators, and can handle procedures like IV insertions. One nurse commented that she was finally able to eat lunch during her shift, Duchene said.

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In another case, a large young man with COVID hadn’t showered in days, but was too weak to walk to the bathroom. On Monday evening, one of Johnson’s team helped Duchene assist the man with a shower.

“We got him up, into a shower and it was awesome. He was clean — and totally wiped out,” she said. “I could not have managed that on my own, and I couldn’t have pulled another nurse off their assignment to do that. He got a shower … it’s really cool.”

AMR is responding to the federal government’s request for emergency services deployment in response to COVID-19 in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. The organization is not part of FEMA, but has a national agreement with FEMA to provide personnel to supplement federal and military response to disasters, act of terrorism or other public health emergencies, Johnson said.

She said her team is keenly aware of the difference they are making, and how appreciated they are by SVMC staff.

“They are constantly checking on us, making sure we’re OK, making sure we’ve eaten,” she said.

“We make a living out of helping people,” she said. “Being able to provide this service in a hospital setting is a blessing. We love our families, too. But they are used to us being gone, and they know mom or dad is out helping save the world. It’s a blessing to be able to go to another state and do it.”

Duchene said Johnson’s team is scheduled to depart Dec. 31, but she has applied for an extension to keep them longer. “Right now, we’ve got the volunteers here and it’s feeling pretty darn good,” she said.

Although they have been through this drill 54 times, leaving will also be tough on the medical volunteers.

“It’s really difficult because we’ve made this home,” Johnson said.


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