First published in the Jan. 27 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
Dave Tannehill spent four years in the United States Navy and has 17 years under his belt as a member of the San Marino Fire Department, but even those roles couldn’t fully prepare him for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tannehill, a firefighter/paramedic with the SMFD, said he has observed the number of COVID-19 infections mount in the past few weeks.
“As COVID-19 symptoms mirror that of the flu, hospitals have been inundated,” Tannehill said.
“Visitors are not being allowed in and wait times at the local hospitals in the San Gabriel Valley system have been averaging a wait time of two to seven hours despite the valiant efforts of the nursing and hospital staff.”
Though many are looking forward to the end of the pandemic, Tannehill and his co-workers have observed renewed, palpable anxiety levels given that the Omicron variant spreads much more easily than its predecessors.
“They have reached an all-time high in our community, I think,” Tannehill said of the worries held by local residents. “This is understandable, because people want to know if they are infected and wonder if their personal medical history makes them more likely to be one of those who succumb to the disease. In many people’s minds this means that they may have a life-threatening situation and want answers as soon as possible.”
First responders are approaching their second anniversary battling what SMFD Fire Chief Mario Rueda has called the “invisible enemy” that is COVID.
“As a paramedic in San Marino, my role is to assess and offer our best care possible, or at least advise individuals on a safer and more effective solution to their immediate problem,” Tannehill said. “As all the hospitals have long wait times, patients coming in with flu-like symptoms — even including exertional shortness of breath — would likely place them at the back of the line or send them to the crowded waiting room, where, if the individual did not have COVID, they could likely contract it in the hospital setting.”
He recounted a recent experience where he helped a senior woman with flu-like symptoms, who was scared and resolute about being taken to the hospital by ambulance. Due to her mild symptoms, the hospital asked her to sit in the waiting room so the ambulance’s gurney and personnel could return to service.
“Normally, this would be a prudent decision by the hospital. [But] my patient had a fever, weakness and chills on top of her age, so I chose a different path and stayed with our patient,” Tannehill said. “At least she could continue to lay on our gurney in comfort, and I waited with her for several hours in the waiting room. I feel that this is exactly the type of service expected of a San Marino firefighter/paramedic.”
Tannehill said the department has been the front-line response since the dawn of the pandemic.
“I remember responding to known COVID patients in the city when none of us really knew if we would be able to protect ourselves with the PPE (personal protective equipment) we had at our disposal,” Tannehill said. “And very little was known about the likelihood of mortality of those who contracted the disease. Since the vaccine, some of us feel safer, but in my experience both the vaccinated and unvaccinated people contract the disease with varying severity. Still, it was our duty to respond, and we did so without hesitation.”
That sacrifice eventually turned into infection as Tannehill eventually caught COVID himself.
“I personally contracted the disease while performing my duties and subsequently took it home and infected my family,” he said. Tannehill and his wife, Molly, have two children. All had been vaccinated against the virus.
“We have mostly recovered, and I have returned to work. … It is hard, but my family and I fully understand the risks of my calling as a firefighter. No one complained or blamed me or my bosses for their exposure through me. It is a privilege to serve, and I am grateful that I get to be the one to respond when called.”
Tannehill said his experience in the U.S. armed forces prepared him for a career in the fire department.
“We are ready to act when called upon,” Tannehill said. “Those of us who served in the military can relate to this. We place our bodies and our futures between danger and those we protect.”
Tannehill entered the Navy “to do something I could be proud of,” and spoke about the “camaraderie borne of adversity.” He served on the USS Downes, a destroyer, which he reported has since been sunk and transformed into a reef. But it was there that he became a shipboard firefighter and the equivalent of an EMT. A firefighter acquaintance encouraged him to join the fire service, and the rest is history.
Tannehill mentioned Rueda’s estimation that responding to calls these days can be more stressful than racing into a burning building, but “like in the military, we are trained to take calculated risks.”
“Yes, it is dangerous, and the future is uncertain,” he said. “But I will be one who faces whatever comes head on. I have faith that this too shall pass.”