New York, NY – If you’re lucky, a positive case of coronavirus might only mean flu-like symptoms, some bed rest and two weeks of quarantine. For 10-year FDNY-EMS paramedic Christell Cadet, getting sick with Covid-19 was nearly a death sentence.
“I have a history of asthma,” says Cadet, 35. “My asthma started flaring up [at work]. I was coughing, having shortness of breath. I tried my medications, then I went home for my nebulizer and inhaler, but nothing was working. I was like that for two days and then I finally went to the hospital.”
The Rosedale, Queens resident went to the hospital on March 18, 2020, and did not leave for 44 days.
“I got it at the station pretty bad,” says Cadet. “I was sedated, intubated, on a ventilator and I was on life support.”
By the time she went to the hospital, Cadet was in respiratory failure and she needed to be on an ECMO machine.
“It was traumatizing and I still have a certain level of PTSD [post-traumatic disorder] from it,” she says. “When I first woke up, I didn’t know what was going on and couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t moving. I was still intubated when I woke.”
After being admitted to the hospital, Cadet did not wake up until April 24. When she did awaken, she still could not breathe on her own without assistance. By this time, she learned about the pandemic and ensuing shutdown.
“I had just started to hear about the virus that Monday [March 16],” she says. “It wasn’t until I went home from the hospital that I learned about the extent of it. There were no visitors allowed and they eventually told me that my father had a stroke because he, too, had gotten COVID-19. Nobody wanted to tell me right away. They did not want to scare me.”
Cadet comes from a very tight-knit Haitian family and was overwhelmed to find out that her father, who is disabled, suffered a stroke at the beginning of April, while she was still in a coma.
“You can’t see anybody,” Cadet says. “You can’t move. You’re hearing that the world is completely different and that nobody can go anywhere. Nobody can do anything, and that supplies are in short demand. It was scary not being able to see or communicate with my family.”
As a paramedic, Cadet is used to taking care of people, including her own father. The family patriarch suffered a stroke in 2013, that left him with left-side paralysis. Cadet now wonders if she unintentionally infected him with the virus.
“His speech is now slurry and slower,” says Cadet. “He was able to walk a little bit with ease, but now he is dragging his feet. His speech is never going to get better.”
Cadet’s mother, a former registered nurse working at a nursing home, had to leave her job for almost a year to take care of both her daughter and husband.
“When I left the hospital, I could not walk, I could not move, I could not feed myself, I could not bathe myself,” Cadet says. “I needed total rehab. [My mother] has been helping me rehabilitate for the last nine months.”
Not only has Cadet’s quality of life been affected, but so has her career as a paramedic.
“I feel useless,” she says. “I’m sad that I can’t be with my co-workers to help make a difference. I’m in rehab four times a week. I need to have a certain surgery. Post-COVID-19, I have nerve issues and I also have damage to my knee from the life support machine. I’m in therapy to regain use of my knees and nerves.”
Cadet must also see a pulmonologist every few weeks. She is only breathing at 40% capacity. Doctors constantly monitor her looking for improvement.
Despite the ongoing care, doctors do not expect any immediate progress with Cadet’s lung function.
“I can’t ever work as a paramedic again,” she says. “As a paramedic, you have 18 months where you can be out because of any injury and go back. I am nearing my 18 months. Either they help me find a suitable position or my career is over.”
Cadet’s union, FDNY EMS Local 2507, has helped her along the way.
“Any resources that I need, the union sends my way,” says Cadet. “The union has been supportive. If I need anything with different health funds or get out of a financial rut, they help as much as I need it. The union has been there for me.”
Although her career as a paramedic may be in doubt, Cadet still hopes to be able to share her extensive knowledge with a new generation of paramedics.
“I’m hoping to become an instructor at the Fire Department, so that I can help the incoming students,” says Cadet. “If I can’t work as a paramedic in the field, I can at least teach the incoming classes.”