Stephanie Deitke understands the rigors of being a paramedic for East Hills Ambulance in Richland Township.

During her 24-year career, she has seen car wrecks, medical emergencies, injuries and deaths. Deitke and her colleagues prepare steadily for whatever crisis might arise.

And then the unexpected happened: COVID-19.

When the virus erupted on the East and West coasts, Deitke’s world was shaken.

“Initially, I was scared,” she said. “I have two kids and I was afraid to bring it home.”

She also feared for her co-workers. 

“When we take a person to the hospital, we have a minimum of two people on the ambulance,” she said.

COVID-19 “could potentially take out a lot of people in one day – my coworkers,” Deitke said.

More uncertainty surfaced when the virus invaded Cambria, Somerset and surrounding counties. 

“The fear came up even more,” she said. “I started doing research on how to protect myself even more and protect my co-workers, my family.” 

‘It’s rough out there’ 

Some of those precautions include changing clothes after each shift and taking a shower when she arrives home.

The state Department of Health announced on Friday the addition of three new cases of COVID-19 in Cambria County, bringing the total to 31. One person has died. Another case was added Sunday in Cambria, while Somerset recorded three cases and its first death on Saturday.

Cambria County has one case of COVID-19 in a long-term care facility. 

“It’s rough out there,” said Donald Gawel, ambulance commander and manager of East Hills Ambulance.

“When you go to a nursing home, you don’t know what to expect.”

Gawel said there are six care facilities in the East Hills jurisdiction – which includes Lorain and Geistown boroughs, Richland Township and a portion of Adams Township, Belmont and Oakland.

“If something happens in one of the nursing homes, it’s going to spread real quick,” he said.

East Hills operates with 24 paramedics and 24 emergency medical technicians (EMTs). They are equipped with N95 masks, gloves, gowns, full bodysuits and various forms of eye protection including face shields. 

‘Here to help people’

Deitke worked her way through the ranks. She rode in the ambulance as part of the Explorer program when she was 16. A 1996 graduate of Greater Johnstown High School, Deitke went on to become an EMT, and then a paramedic.

“She’s very dedicated,” Gawel said. “She started when she was 16 and worked her way up from EMT to paramedic. That’s impressive.”

Gawel said East Hills Ambulance has been fortunate. No workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and no patient has tested positive – although Cambria County has had at least five cases among emergency personnel.

Fortunes could change quickly, as the county continues to add new COVID-19 cases.

Deitke said while no one expected COVID-19, she remains determined to help the community get through the pandemic.

“I signed up to help people, knowing that on occasion my life might be in danger,” she said. “We’re here to help people when they’re at their lowest point. You and your family, we are here to help.”

Patrick Buchnowski is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5061. Follow him on Twitter @PatBuchnowskiTD.

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