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Answering The Call

How Shannon Sovndal and his fellow first responders have processed COVID-19.

Mike Thurk, used with permission.
Mike Thurk, used with permission.

Shannon Sovndal’s career took a circuitous route—through the Air Force Academy, bike racing, and a degree in economics. But when he found emergency medicine, he knew he had discovered a passion.

He now serves as the medical director for air and ground EMS agencies, working with the Boulder Police Department, the Boulder Fire Department, and the Denver FBI Tactical Team. He is also the author of the book Fragile: Beauty in Chaos, Grace in Tragedy, and the Hope That Lives in Between .

Sovndal recounted both the pain—and the beauty—of serving on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.

Why did you decide to pursue emergency medicine?

I got into medicine because I wanted to step up to the plate and take care of people’s problems. The interesting part of that is that so much of medicine is failure. You have this image in your mind that you’re going to show up and be a hero, but there are a lot of patients who don’t make it. It weighs heavily on you.

How did those experiences prepare you for the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, at any moment of any day, your life could be turned on its head. You could think everything is going well, and all of a sudden you have a heart attack, a car accident, or the same happens to your spouse. When you experience that regularly as an ER doctor, you’re constantly thinking about how fragile everything is, how your life can be turned around in a heartbeat, literally.

Not being able to control that is really hard. Every time a patient dies, it takes a little piece of your soul. I went into a dark spot because of that fact; I became depressed. What I’ve learned over the past 20 years is to sit right on the edge but not get sucked into the hole. Dark moments actually open you up to experience bright moments. The love that I have for my wife and my kids and how I feel watching the moon rise—I never would’ve had that appreciation if I hadn’t been in that dark place.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during COVID?

The beginning of the pandemic was hugely stressful because departments were relying on me to give advice as to how to approach a patient, what protection EMS workers should be wearing, and how they should go about their work. I was worried that I would tell the EMS teams something wrong and they would get sick. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about them.

It was also hard on them because things were changing so fast. I’d give advice but then have to revise that advice two days later. It makes the responder feel like, “Hey, you don’t know what’s going on.” Because we didn’t know what was going on! We were not totally prepared for a pandemic.

What challenges have other first responders experienced?

One hard part, for example, is that firefighters live at the station during their shift. It’s not easy to tell guys who are social and live together that they need to go to their rooms or wear masks and not do the training exercises they normally do.

Firefighters have also mentioned that life is hard at home. They’re isolated, trying to teach their kid second grade. That creates stress, irritability, and arguments. Some spouses are furloughed, so they don’t have as much money now. That stress is what the rest of the population is dealing with, but these guys are also dealing with it at work. It’s a double whammy.

What has given first responders hope and resilience?

There’s a real camaraderie among the care providers at work. There’s a sense that we’re a team in this totally unexpected and uncommon event. I feel a sense of pride that we’re doing what we claim to do—we’re answering the call.

This has happened at a lot of hospitals, but the EMS providers showed up at the hospitals at night, and they saluted everyone who works at the hospital. When they finished saluting, everyone who worked at the hospital cheered and applauded the EMS providers.

The outreach from the community has also been powerful—like bringing food, delivering letters from kids at the hospital, and clapping and yelling every night at 8 p.m.

How can we address the mental health of first responders?

It’s important to acknowledge the emotions we’re feeling. We’re good at hiding emotions at work because it’s a requirement of the job, but don’t hide them indefinitely. Talk to someone who has your framework so you can feel like, “Hey, I’m normal.”

The other key is to remember to enjoy life. You need to find the things you like, and they can be little. I can really appreciate a cup of coffee. In the right cup? It’s amazing.

What strategies can health care systems adopt?

We need to open avenues for people to get help and try to decrease the stigma around asking for help, especially for health care professionals. Physicians are often concerned it could affect their license or their job. We need to have debriefs, anonymous helplines, and groups within our own cadre of care providers to open that up.

There are multiple avenues for treating stress, anxiety, PTSD, and depression. We know that cognitive therapy works, but it’s hard.

I personally suffered from depression when I was a resident, as many residents do. Luckily my program set me up with a psychiatrist. I took medication for a brief period to get me out of the hole so that I could continue cognitive therapy, and it started to work. Today, 25 years later, I still think about things that psychiatrist said.

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