What It’s Like Being a First Responder During the Pandemic

Paramedic supervisor Marie Hathaway transported one of the first known COVID-19 cases in Hawai‘i.


Editor’s Note: For our July 2020 issue of HONOLULU, we searched for stories from people all around O‘ahu about the moment COVID-19 became real to them. We spoke with a critical care nurse, care home operators, a mail carrier, a hotel worker who lost her job, a police captain and more back in April and May about the ways their lives at work and at home suddenly changed. Check back on honolulumagazine.com every week for a new story. Pick up the issue on newsstands in late June, subscribe or visit our online store.


Here’s the full version of Marie Hathaway’s story in her own words, as told to Katrina Valcourt. The 47-year-old paramedic supervisor and Mililani resident is part of Metro One EMS, the ambulance unit that covers Waikīkī to Kalihi.


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Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino




n early March, late February, the virus was being televised in China. We knew it would be spreading here just from the sheer volume of the visitors we get from all over.


My job is more exhausting probably than ever before. Early on, like everybody, I think I had that false sense of security that it kind of only affected the older folks with comorbidities. I think more people felt safe until it started evolving into, “No, it can affect everybody.”


Once I saw a healthy young female patient with COVID-19 crash at Queen’s ER and have to go to the ICU, I became even more nervous. What was different between her and me? I had a more exposed and evolved immunity, I’m thinking, but around the world and especially on the East Coast, health care workers and young, seemingly healthy people were dying, and so quickly after having minor symptoms.


For us, in EMS, we are on top of the latest information. Every day we learned a little bit more and adjusted how we responded. Once it was common knowledge among us front-liners that people could be shedding the virus and be symptom-free, we knew that every call we had needed to be a presumed positive. That shot the stress and workload level up exponentially. Every call became positive until proven otherwise.


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Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



The first patient that was a known positive, we picked him up. He and his wife were here on holiday. EMS had picked him up and already brought him to the hospital the week before and he tested positive. Once he started having more symptoms and became more short of breath and had higher fever, I think that’s when he decided to go back to the hospital. He called EMS for transport.


Until you get face to face with somebody, you are a little worried, you just wanna make sure you’re protected and they’re protected. But when you see somebody’s eyes, and you see the worry in their eyes, my heart went out to this guy. I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel like a disease. We didn’t know at that point if he was even gonna make it, ultimately. I wanted to make sure that his experience with us was caring and compassionate. But it does make you nervous still.


The level of personal protective equipment that we put on and off is a lot more work, physically. It’s hot, there’s a lot that we have to do to put that on. It takes time and we wanna make sure we are always protecting ourselves before we go in to see any patient.


At home, I try to follow social distancing, wearing a mask when going out in public, lots and lots of hand washing and hand wipes, hand sanitizer, all that good stuff, bringing extra wipes to wipe down public surfaces that you touch, like shopping cart handles and stuff.


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Photo: Courtesy of Marie Hathaway



I’ve always made my own hand sanitizer so that wasn’t an issue.


We still tried to stay upbeat and joked around. It’s our coping mechanism.


One of the hardest things for me personally is I smile a lot, I’m social, I like to interact with people. We’ve all had to pull back from that and it doesn’t feel natural. I miss being able to have people see me smile. You can’t see people smile through a mask.


We will get through this. The community here is very strong. A sense of family and responsibility to take care of each other is what drives most people here. So given that, we will all work through this together and be stronger for it.