An Indigenous Paramedic on the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic
his article is one in a series of real life stories from Indigenous VaxC?hamps who have shared their reasons for getting vaccinated against COVID-19.?
If the COVID-19 pandemic has felt like a long road for people, it's been especially difficult for frontline health care workers like Terrilyn Good, a BC Ambulance paramedic with BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS). In the course of a regular workday, she frequently cares for unvaccinated patients who have COVID-19, rushing them to the hospital to receive life-saving emergency care.
“I see amongst my colleagues the burnout, the mental health injuries that people are getting from going to COVID-19 patient after COVID-19 patient," said Terrilyn, who works in Surrey's hot zone. “I keep pushing myself because I know if I take an absence it puts a heavier workload on my colleagues."
Originally from the small community of Gitanyow in northern BC, the path to becoming a paramedic happened almost naturally. Terrilyn first learned basic first aid at the age of 16 in the Bold Eagle Military program, a course geared toward First Nations youth. She scored the highest mark in her class.
Four years later, however, she discovered she was woefully unprepared for helping her son when he had a sudden seizure.
“It scared the living daylights out of me, feeling so out of control and not knowing how to deal with that situation terrified me," she said.
Terrilyn took an emergency childcare first aid course, and later while working in Gitanyow as a youth program coordinator she pushed her employer to pay for her Level 2 and 3 first aid certification as well.
Once she got her Level 3 training, Terrilyn said people in Gitanyow began calling her during emergencies, even though she wasn't yet a paramedic. As a remote community an hour's drive from the nearest hospital in Hazelton, calling 911 meant people would not receive immediate help.
One night she got yet another call for help and had an epiphany.
“So I went over and helped that person and as the ambulance was driving away that's when I realized that's what I wanted to do."
Terrilyn took her training to become a paramedic in 2016 and has been working with BC Ambulance for nearly four years now. She is one of the few Indigenous paramedics in the organization.
Like the majority of health care workers, Terrilyn was eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine and was in line the first week it became available to paramedics. However, as an Indigenous woman, she knows vaccine acceptance rates are lower among First Nations people in BC.
She speculates that the reasons for that include a lack of vaccine information, concerns about Western medicine, as well as stigma and systemic racism in the health care system.
She currently works with vaccine-hesitant populations in Surrey and often comes across unvaccinated patients when responding to calls.
“Once I stabilize them I ask them, 'Why didn't you get your vaccine?'"
She has heard many reasons: 'I didn't have time. I didn't think I would get sick because I'm young and healthy. I don't believe in vaccines. I don't trust the vaccine because it was made so quickly.'
Terrilyn said she uses such answers as an opportunity for education.
“I say, well, actually the vaccine for SARS has been in development for a number of years and finally they've had a strain of a SARS-like virus that they could use to get the mRNA vaccine trialed and made safe for the public."
Terrilyn said that the most important thing is to remain calm, even if deep down she's upset that people didn't get vaccinated. Her training taught her to maintain her composure and show understanding and kindness, regardless of the circumstances of the emergency. Often, she said people who are extremely sick with COVID-19 will express remorse for not acting sooner.
“A lot of times one of the things they'll say to me is, 'I wish I had got the vaccine.'"
Terrliyn said it can be disheartening to learn that an elderly person was infected by a younger family member who didn't get vaccinated because they felt their youth and health would protect them. They don't realize that although they might recover, their parents or grandparents could get sick and possibly die.
Despite the difficult workload and mental stress, Terrilyn maintains a positive outlook. In her #VaxChamp message she encourages people to get vaccinated as a “simple, selfless act that can make a difference. I try every day to make a difference. You can, too!"