San Francisco firefighter and paramedic Sam Gebler was featured on the public radio program This American Life over the weekend recalling a particularly crazy workday last August — and how COVID has come to color so much of what he and his colleagues have faced on the job over the last year.
It was a sunny Saturday, August 15, 2020, and Ocean Beach was packed with San Franciscans escaping their apartments and the otherwise dreary sixth month of a global pandemic. Gebler was called out, nearly immediately after a hairy cliff rescue, to rescue three teenage swimmers who had been pulled out to sea by a rip current near Sutro Baths. One of the three, a female swimmer, was unconscious when the rescuers got to her, and they had to try to perform CPR using only a surfboard, while floating in the open ocean, far enough out that they couldn't see the beach.
UPDATE DRAMATIC RESCUE OFF SUTRO BATHS — 3 TEENS DROWNING ALL SAVED BY @GGNRANPSAlerts #Oceanrescue and #SFFDCOASTALRESCUE 1 TEEN REQUIRED CPR WHILE IN THE SURF — 7 RESCUE SWIMMERS 1 @USCGPacificSW Helicopter and #SFFDRB1 (Rescue boat) used for rescue. ALL THREE TEENS ARE ALIVE https://t.co/zFw3IItHiV— SAN FRANCISCO FIRE DEPARTMENT MEDIA (@SFFDPIO) August 16, 2020
They managed to get the girl breathing again, but only after she'd coughed up a lot of water.
"This is something I'll never forget," Gebler says. "Just sitting in the water there, and having this person who I don't know vigorously cough into my face. And I don't have a mask on and she doesn't have a mask on, because we're in the ocean and there are no masks in the ocean. And I just remember thinking, 'Man, I really hope she doesn't have COVID.'"
He laughs a bit at the absurdity of the moment. "You know, it's like there are so many other things to be thinking about right now. This person almost drowned, we're still in a dangerous position, we're getting sucked out into this shipping lane... I'm trying not to get eaten by a shark... I'm just amazed at myself that I'm thinking about COVID in a situation like this."
Gebler said that he looked over at his coworker, and it was written all over his face too as the woman was coughing on them.
The cliff rescue, incidentally, involved a woman who was in a distraught and possibly intoxicated state, unable to follow the commands of her rescuers, but as ___ was helping her to safety she kept talking about COVID, and how the pandemic had taken everything from her and this disease was "messing with her mind."
"This difficulty of calls and the stress of calls is much higher than normal," he says. No matter how much experience he and his colleagues have had with a variety of difficult or dangerous situations, "This COVID thing is new," he says.
As Hoodline reported at the time, it was a pretty intense weekend for SFFD paramedics at the beach, even without COVID to worry about. Three people had to be rescued from the water at Ocean Beach on Friday afternoon, in two separate incidents. There was a beachgoer with a broken leg and another cliff rescue on Saturday, after the three teens nearly drowned and that other cliff rescue happened. And in total, there were 15 surf rescues over three days that weekend.
Sam didn't get COVID that day, or since then. And he tells This American Life that some of the stress of the job has lifted in the last few weeks, since getting his second COVID vaccine dose.