Outlook 2022: Mohawk Ambulance employees overcome added stress of pandemic

Mohawk Ambulance Shift Supervisor Corey Gittens at Station 5 on Central Avenue in Albany
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Mohawk Ambulance Shift Supervisor Corey Gittens at Station 5 on Central Avenue in Albany

The green and white ambulances you see threading through the Capital Region’s streets may have a uniform look, but inside are Mohawk Ambulance Service professionals who have likely taken very different paths to get there.

Look no further than supervisors Avery Hodges and Corey Gittens. For Hodges, a 25-year-old Long Island native who is a paramedic, the job is a valuable stepping stone in a career he hopes leads to cardiothoracic surgery. For Gittens, a 38-year-old Barbados native, the job as an EMT is a meaningful venture he wants to continue for a long time — eventually as a paramedic, but still in the emergency medical services field.

Hodges and Gittens are two of the roughly 225 providers who work for Mohawk. The private ambulance company, which makes its money through direct payment for services, has six emergency centers, located in Albany, Brunswick, Glenville, Schenectady and Troy, and is the largest privately owned ambulance service in upstate New York. In addition to emergency response, Mohawk provides services such as non-emergency transport, private training for hospitals and event standby services. The ambulance service averages roughly 50,000 emergency calls and 20,000 non-emergency calls a year, according to Dan Gilmore, Mohawk’s director of operations.

Like many segments of the health care industry, EMS providers such as Mohawk have been stressed because of the pandemic. But Ashley Davison, Mohawk’s human resources director, said she has been doing what she can since coming aboard in May of 2021 to help develop a more progressive culture that truly takes the views of employees like Hodges and Gittens into account.

“My task is to come in and bring a little bit more people-focus into it. It’s really listening to the employees, getting them involved in the decision-making, surveying them to see how we’re doing,” Davison said. “Our focus, especially during COVID, has been to keep people’s spirits up by reminding them why they are doing this and how essential they are to the community.”

Gittens needs no reminder. He came to Mohawk later in life — after working in jobs such as personal trainer and in fulfillment at Walmart — in part, because he’d seen how EMS crews helped his now-10-year-old son, who dealt with seizures between the ages of 1 and 5.

“It was heartwarming to see how they took care of my son,” Gittens said. “It started to turn the wheels a little bit.”
Gittens, who said his son is now doing well but has dealt with some developmental delays, took advantage of Mohawk’s free EMT training courses and found himself with a job. Gittens celebrated his two-year anniversary with Mohawk this month.

Hodges, meanwhile, said that learning to cope with the stress of the job — which can see him racing from a sprained ankle on one call to a severe burn on the next — can prepare him to be a surgeon.

“It definitely has the benefit of fortifying you for stress, or at least giving you a stress reaction that’s productive and efficient,” Hodges said. “The way I have learned to form my processing mechanism for stress is to just treat each patient as a learning experience. I don’t really carry a patient with me in my mind unless there is something that I deem I can learn from it. I’ll go back and I’ll reflect on what I could have done better or differently. So that’s a big thing that helps me process.”

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COVID-19 has made things more stressful for EMS workers, whether it was the extra protective gear required at the beginning of the pandemic or the staffing shortages coming from positive cases as the omicron variant spread, employees said.

“For our group, it was a concerning time when COVID first hit. We didn’t know a lot about it. We knew it had the potential to be very dangerous and we were transporting some very, very sick patients,” Gilmore said. “Yet our workforce hung together. I mean, we didn’t have a single employee walk off the job saying, ‘Nope, this is not what I signed up for, I’m not going to take on this risk.’ ”

Davison said Mohawk’s turnover rate is no greater than what most EMS agencies see. A 2021 American Ambulance Association study found the turnover rate was between 20% and 30% for full-time paramedics and EMTs, similar to levels seen in prior years.

Still, Davison said Mohawk has renewed its focus on the employees, in part because of the stress of the pandemic. Strategies include raffles to reward workers, company-wide kudos for jobs well done and actively encouraging employee feedback.

“We try to combat the obvious burnout, especially with the omicron variant that’s been ripping through people,” Davison said. “It’s not as severe, so people come back to work quickly. But we had a time, especially during the holidays, where we had a lot of people out and people were working overtime to cover those shifts. So it’s all about keeping them motivated and keeping them connected to the larger vision of being a help to their community.”

Still, stress is unavoidable in this line of work.

Gittens said his most memorable call so far has been a traffic accident in Albany in which a man’s legs were almost entirely severed after he was pinned to a pole. Gittens and his partner had to apply tourniquets and transport him to the hospital as quickly as possible. They were able to prolong the patient’s life, but he eventually died because of abdominal trauma, Gittens said. Still, the experience made Gittens realize he was up to the task.

“It bothered me, but it was one of those things that helped me to realize that, you know what, EMS is for you because you didn’t panic in that situation,” Gittens said. “You were able to do what you had to do to ensure that that patient got the best care possible.”

Gilmore, who started his EMS career as a volunteer before working his way up to Mohawk’s director of operations, said after three decades in the field, things continue to surprise him.

“You would think after 34 years on the job I could truly say I have seen everything. And yet I have patients in situations that prove me wrong today still. That’s the interesting part of it. You go on calls that you just walk away from scratching your head going, ‘I couldn’t make this up. Nobody would believe me,’ ” he said. “You don’t know what you’re walking into and that’s exciting. Sometimes it gets a little scary. But it’s very dynamic, and I can’t see that being anywhere else in health care.”

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