REVIEW: Riding the Lightning: A Year in the Life of a New York City Paramedic by Anthony Almojera
The education of a New York City EMS worker, whose tales of tragedy and transcendence over a single year culminate in the greatest challenge the city’s medical first responders have ever faced: COVID-19
As a seasoned medical technician and union leader, Anthony Almojera thought he understood the toll of the job on first responders. They carried the traumas of the city, but also its triumphs, whenever a baby was born on a subway platform or an elderly man in cardiac arrest was brought back from the brink of death. So when a strange new virus began spreading in New York, Anthony thought that his life and training had prepared him for this new challenge. The months ahead would prove him wrong, and would test the strength of the entire EMS system: a critical thread in the fabric of the city, but one that quickly found itself at the breaking point.
Following one paramedic into hell and back, Riding the Lightning tells the story of New York City’s darkest days through the eyes of one extraordinary medic and the New Yorkers he serves—and serves with: ordinary people who will continue to make New York an extraordinary place long after it has been reborn from the ashes of 2020.
I’ve seen plenty of autobiographies from nurses and doctors about their experiences during the early days of the Covid crisis but for some reason EMTs and paramedics have always interested me more. They are the ones often really on the front lines who usually deal with patients first. Here Almojera talks of how the EMTs and paramedics with whom he works as a lieutenant first heard about a new virus causing lockdowns first in China and then in Lombardy before it hit NYC like a tsunami. As Covid spread, the working conditions went from the normal overworked to dangerously stressed to the point of almost breaking. In one day, the author attended approximately 16 arrests (heart attacks) in the field due to the stresses put on the body by the disease, all of whom died. People became either frantic or cavalier about protection.
The stress on the EMTs and paramedics was almost worse due to struggling and often failing to save patients too sick or too unwilling to call for help before their situation deteriorated beyond help. Patients waited hours on the line after dialing 911 but often when staff finally reached them, the patients were already dead. Frantic and overworked doctors and nurses begged the EMS service personnel to take patients to other hospitals but all were packed, forcing ambulances to wait to transfer the patients into the ER. And then there were the idiotic memos from the higher ups who rarely appeared at stations to see what was really needed by those on the frontlines trying their best. (WARNING) Depression and suicides among first responders followed.
These sections were alternately riveting and horrifying but Almojera includes a lot of background information about himself and his fellow EMS personnel that takes up a good portion of the early part of the book. Some of this explains long term friendships, how the stressors affected them all, and that many of them were from broken backgrounds. Though I felt for these people, since I don’t know them, these sections didn’t draw me in as much. The author also breaks up the Covid sections when he goes off on tangents about more of his past.
He does a great job of explaining some of the technicalities of the job, how the virus affected those already in poor health, or underprivileged. I just wish there had been a little less of his life and more about the job. B-