'It was heart-wrenching': Local paramedic shares experience of COVID-19 diagnosis while on the job

Robin Forristal was the first paramedic in Waterloo Region to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I didn’t see my kids for 31 days," she said. "It was heart-wrenching. It was very difficult for me to explain on FaceTime that mum had COVID. They were very scared. Not being able to hug them and hold them and tell them I was going to be OK was really difficult.”

Forristal says her symptoms were mild to moderate; she didn’t seek medical attention and she wasn’t hospitalized.

“The worst part was the unknown," she said. "The fear, every night going to bed, thinking I don’t [want] to wake up in the night so sick that I need to call my coworkers and put them in jeopardy as well."

As a primary care paramedic following ever-changing protocols during a pandemic, Forristal said she’s spent more time than usual at emergency scenes.

“Our job has become more difficult, more arduous. The calls take longer,” she said. “We’ve lost our ability these days to really form those good bonds and connections with our patients because of the PPE. It’s hard to form a relationship with somebody when you’re wearing PPE and covered head-to-toe, and they can barely hear what you’re saying.”

Forristal has been a paramedic in the region for 18 years. She also works as a service instructor, teaching and training new recruits and paramedics returning to work.

“My husband is also a first responder. He’s a firefighter,” she said. “So with both of us still working, still out in the community, it has been difficult to arrange child care and to enact procedures in our home that keep our children safe.”

Forristal said the public’s perception of paramedics has changed during the pandemic – and in a wonderful way.

“I hope it continues,” she said. “I hope we can all use this forward momentum to get ourselves in a position to best serve our community.”

The simplest gestures, such as making signs or banging pots and pans in tribute of health care workers and first responders, can go a long way in lifting spirits.

“When you’re having a hard day, when you’re done some terrible calls, when you’ve seen such sadness, to go to a base and arrive there and see someone has put a sign out front to thank you for doing your job has such an unbelievable positive impact,” she said.