RECOVERING FROM COVID: Firefighter Noe Lopez’s Harrowing Account
Firefighter Noe Lopez is a 20-year veteran of the LAFD. The San Pedro native has seen all types of incidents and traumatic experiences while serving our communities. However, nothing could have prepared him for how contracting COVID-19 would impact his family.
Lopez woke up on a Friday morning with a searing pain in his throat. It was March 27th, the day after working a typical shift at Fire Station 36 (San Pedro, CA). He recalls telling his wife, Bonnie, that it felt like an ugly case of strep. Still, given the range of questionable incidents he’d responded to lately, he figured it was worth getting tested if his symptoms didn’t quickly subside.
The next day, Lopez phoned in sick and reported to the LAFD testing site near Dodger Stadium.
At that point, the anxiety of waiting for his results felt worse than his physical symptoms. He headed home, hoping some much-deserved rest would help speed along his recovery.
In the two weeks prior, Lopez had responded to numerous incidents that involved, or “potentially” involved COVID patients – including dozens of EMS calls, and a slight uptick in medical calls involving ill seniors.
Lopez was part of the first-in crew on a call to assist an ill inmate at Terminal Island Prison – where shortly after, the virus prompted a mass evacuation after close to 700 confirmed COVID cases. He also responded to several incidents involving severely ill patients on cruise ships at the port.
In the days leading up to FF Lopez receiving his test results, Bonnie began experiencing some stronger-than-usual allergy-type symptoms. She decided not to take any chances and booked her testing appointment. Noe was already self-quarantining at home, but she needed to ensure it was safe for her to continue interacting with their son and live-in niece.
Oddly enough, Bonnie’s testing results arrived before Noe’s. She had tested positive. “It was an emotional gut punch,” expressed Noe. “I was in disbelief that this was probably my fault. I’d brought this on my family. You know there are certain risks with this job, but I had really hoped I could have prevented bringing this home.”
Bonnie was one of the fortunate ones. Her symptoms varied daily, but never advanced beyond a stuffy nose, itchy throat, and watery eyes. Meanwhile, Noe’s condition was worsening quickly. By the time his results arrived two days after Bonnie’s, it served as confirmation of what they had suspected.
“You name it, it hit me,” remarked Noe. “I had it all - body aches, chills, joint pain, loss of taste, smell and appetite. I could not sleep. And when I did manage to drift off for a few hours, I was hit with those hallucinogenic nightmares. Crazy stuff. But managing the fever was the hardest part.”
“Like clockwork, we had to cover him with cold packs, and give him Tylenol every four hours,” Bonnie shared. As the effects of the Tylenol wore off, Noe’s temperature would skyrocket to 103.8° F. Noe and Bonnie’s daughter, an RN, would also routinely help check the oxygen levels in her dad’s blood. Normal pulse oximeter readings usually range from 95 to 100% - on day nine, Noe’s dropped to 88%.
At this point, Bonnie had enough. She insisted on taking him to the hospital. He mustered enough strength for a quick shower and was driven by his wife and son to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center. He was immediately admitted and prepared for transfer to a Torrance-area hospital better equipped to handle his condition.
Noe explained that he went along with going to the hospital to appease his family. He had no idea the advancing hypoxia was inhibiting his mental clarity. During the intake process, he learned that had he delayed seeking treatment by just one more day, he would have needed a breathing tube inserted through his windpipe.
FF Lopez spent the next four days bedridden in the hospital. Chest x-rays revealed pneumonia in both lungs. He was administered the immunosuppressive drug - hydroxychloroquine, a Z-Pak of antibiotics, fever reducer, and pain medications.
Understandably, Bonnie and his children were not permitted to visit. They relied on phone calls to help keep his spirits up, even convincing Noe to try FaceTime for the first time.
By day five, FF Lopez was able walk on his own to the restroom. “It was a small victory. I felt like I’d just run five miles when it was only 15 feet to the bathroom,” he recounted. Against Bonnie’s wishes, Noe was discharged later that day, unofficially because the hospital needed space for incoming COVID patients. He was sent home with a portable oxygen machine, which he would use for the next three weeks.
Recovery was a grueling process, but Noe credits Bonnie with furthering his progress each day. “On top of checking my vitals and giving me my medications, she’d pump me full of vitamins and home remedies to help me get my strength back,” shared Noe.
By the last week of April, FF Lopez was strong enough for walks around a nearby park. About a month later, he was cleared to return to duty on May 5th. “I wasn’t 100% certain he was ready to go back,” expressed Bonnie. “But it turns out, that was exactly what he needed to take the last step towards a full recovery.”
As of June 17th, FF Lopez revealed that he guesstimates his physical condition is around 95% of where he was before getting sick. “Physically, I’m doing well. Aside from some minor skin discoloration, I just have that little lingering whistle-cough from the pneumonia,” he explained. “It’s the psychological effects that are harder-hitting now. As firefighters, we’re extremely diligent about our safety precautions, but I have to be even more cautious now. I can’t risk a bit smoke inhalation on a fire or coming down with a relapse of COVID.”
After 18 days with a fever, and nearly two months of recovery, life is as close to normal as its going to get for FF Lopez and his family. As a precaution, they still maintain distance from their daughter and other family members. Bonnie wonders aloud if Noe’s damaged lungs will fully recover, and how this illness will affect his long-term health. “He seems like himself again, but what does this mean for his future?”
Still, they are eager to move on from one of the scariest times of their lives, even if Noe still has months of routine medical check-ups ahead. Bonnie has since donated plasma to help other COVID patients. Noe is grateful his senses of taste and smell have returned, allowing him to fully enjoy Bonnie’s home cooking. The four family dogs are no longer skittish around him. Now that he’s off the oxygen machine, his pets have welcomed him back home.
FF Lopez is deeply appreciative for the overwhelming support he received from the entire LAFD family. When asked if there was anything he would like to share with those curious about his experience he said, “You don’t want this [COVID-19]. You really don’t. I’ve heard people say it’s like a bad version of the flu… it’s not. There is no comparison. I’m one of the lucky ones that made it. Hopefully people can learn from this and remember to take their safety and health seriously, especially if you have a family.”
Q&A with Battalion Chief Mike Castillo
June 12, 2020 - Los Angeles, CA
We sat down with Battalion Chief Mike Castillo, a 36-year veteran with the LAFD, to talk about his experience coordinating procurement and distribution of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic for the country’s second largest fire department.
Q: How many roles are you currently serving in for the LAFD?
BC Castillo: It varies at this time. As a BC (“Battalion Chief”), I’m fortunate to be assigned to Battalion 1 in the downtown area, which is my primary duty. Battalion 1 is part of Operations Central Bureau with eight fire stations and approximately 95 personnel per shift. For the past three months I have been detailed to our Supply and Maintenance Division as a Liaison Officer, assisting with COVID pandemic supplies, and most recently I was detailed to the Boyd Street fire Serious Incident Review, the incident that resulted in severe injuries to twelve of our firefighters
Q: What is a Supply Unit Liaison and why is this designation a bit out of the ordinary?
BC Castillo: A Supply Unit Liaison (SPUL) is a role you’ll typically see activated and assigned during large wildfires, or other incidents that will carry-on for several days. During fire season, this role would help with coordinating meals, distributing equipment and materials - essentially making sure our firefighters have what they need to get their jobs done. The LAFD activated a SPUL for the COVID pandemic but also temporarily detailed a Battalion Chief to the Supply and Maintenance Division as a Liaison Officer to the SPUL, specifically for the pandemic emergency.
Supply Unit specifics vary from incident to incident. For example, at a brush fire, our crews in the field may need wildland hoses, nozzles, etc. The Supply Unit orders, stocks and distributes those items. Whatever the field needs to accomplish the mission, the Supply Unit will typically supply it to them. In this role, personnel are generally responsible for working with vendors, and partners like the LAFD Foundation, to get the resources we need on tight turnaround.
Tasking a Supply Unit Liaison outside of fire season is a bit unusual, but the need arose at the onset of the pandemic, so here we are.
Q: What do those pandemic-related needs look like and when did they surface?
BC Castillo: PPE was, and continues to be the biggest need. Sourcing cleaning supplies, sanitizer and disinfectant were also high priorities. As COVID protocols began ramping up, it became clear very quickly that the LAFD’s supply chain for replenishing PPE was maxing out. Usually, the Department has a pretty good sense of the supplies each fire station runs through on a monthly basis. In the early weeks of the pandemic, our personnel were burning through PPE at lightning speed, much like first responders in many other parts of the country.
Q: This sounds like a huge undertaking. What’s the first task you tackled?
BC Castillo: Without a doubt, assembling a team was the first priority. I requested several Captains and experienced firefighters to serve as Supply Unit Leaders and staff – the same personnel you would see activated for fire season, or deployed to assist other agencies with forest fires or other large incidents. These folks are the backbone of the operation.
They all know what they’re doing, and they do a remarkable job of making things happen. Additionally, a Ground Support Unit was activated under Logistics. Without the hardworking staff of the Ground Support Unit, none of the supplies would have been delivered throughout the City. A big THANK YOU goes to Brian Labrie, Milt Quintana and Dave Lemmond for their expertise and leadership.
Q: Walk us through how your team operates. What’s different from the normal supply chain process?
BC Castillo: Our goal is to ensure all applicable personnel have a steady supply of masks, gloves, face shields, gowns, sanitizer, etc. These supplies are critical to keeping patients and firefighters safe. We cannot allow supply levels to reach zero. So, we essentially set-up the LAFD equivalent of an Amazon Prime. We created a system where field units could place an internal order for PPE or supplies, and our team would coordinate next day delivery. It’s pretty remarkable to see the new system in action.
Q: What type of results are you seeing?
BC Castillo: We are serving all 106 fire stations, our specialty units, and eight of the public COVID testing sites. I’m pleased to say the operation is running smoothly. The supply chain is stable through the next few months, and our personnel don’t have to worry about running out of supplies… barring any major changes. We have been fortunate to avoid the PPE crisis that has befallen other agencies. The personnel assembled for this mission worked six, sometimes seven days week, 15 hours a day during the first month of the pandemic.
Q: How do you think the LAFD avoided completely depleting its PPE inventory?
BC Castillo: Thankfully, we were keeping a watchful eye on unfolding events. The Department had the foresight to place some sizable PPE orders just before things started turning ugly. Also, the LAFD is very fortunate to have some incredible partners, community groups, and of course the LAFD Foundation. Our supporters stepped forward and donated money, or donated supplies during those crucial weeks in March and April. This really helped bridge the gap while we established our new processes.
Q: Is the LAFD prepared for a surge or wave 2?
BC Castillo: I believe we are. We faced some “interesting” challenges in the early weeks. There was a bit of a learning curve because the effects of the pandemic were mostly new. None of us had ever faced anything comparable. But we leaned on our experience and our desire to find solutions, and we were able to stabilize our supply chain. We have a sufficient inventory of essential items, and at least for the foreseeable future, we’ve eliminated the threat of running out of supplies. It’s pretty cool to say we never ran out… It got close there for a minute, but we never ran out. I think that’s a major factor in how we were able to keep the number of our personnel that tested positive relatively low.
Battalion Chief Castillo insisted on recognizing the following personnel for their dedication to keeping our firefighters safe:
- Elizabeth Borunda, Supply and Maintenance
- Richard “Rick” Fernandez
- Captain Cesar Garcia
- Captain Abel Gomez
- Federico “Freddie” Gomez
- Adrian Guerra
- Captain Matt Laurin
- Captain Ruben Lopez
- Firefighter Mike Marquez
- Captain Matt Pedini
- Firefighter Dustin Sansone
- Captain Sean Saunders
Local Chef Coordinates Movement to Hand-Make Masks for LAFD
April 1, 2020 – Los Angeles, CA
Chef Jane Glenn heard through a friend that firefighters were headed for a shortage of face masks at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. As a breast cancer survivor, she had a box of N95 masks stashed away from her recovery regimen. Jane dug out the box, which turned out to have 50 or so unused masks and decided to drop them off at the LAFD training facility near downtown L.A. She figured the firefighters would accept her small donation and put them to good use.
PHOTO: Chef Jane Glenn (right) presents the first batch of face masks to Assistant Chief Wade White, LAFD Supply & Maintenance Division. Volunteer seamstresses across L.A. handcrafted more than 500 masks for patients being transported by LAFD ambulances.
Coincidentally, Assistant Chief Wade White happened to be onsite at the same time Jane stopped by to drop off the masks. The two struck up an impromptu conversation about the LAFD’s working conditions and elevated safety protocols. Jane’s jaw dropped when she heard the severity of the LAFD’s rapidly diminishing supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“How could this be? One just kind of assumes preparations are in place to safeguard against these situations,” expressed Jane. “My little box of masks would become a drop in the bucket against this immense need.”
Her mind churned as she drove home to Pasadena. She knew she needed to take action, and by the time she pulled into her driveway, she had a plan. Jane raced to her computer and began researching. She knew buying masks was not feasible, so she pivoted to the next option, looking at how masks were made and what materials would be needed.
Jane looked to her social networks like Nextdoor for help, guidance and inspiration. Almost immediately, she connected with Jen Orsini, a retired fashion designer, textile expert and former college instructor. Jane tapped Jen to lead the design and mask development. Now they just needed the materials.
Next, Jane contacted a Southland medical supply company and bought out their remaining inventory of non-woven medical-grade fabrics, a key component to surgical masks. Similar to paper in texture, these disposable fabrics are used to create barriers with breathability.
Simultaneously, Jen reached out to her good friend Robin Cox, owner of a local fabric shop. Robin was eager to help and supplied the materials for the inner layer of the masks that would act as the filter.
With input from Jen and Robin, Jane had the materials and template for the mask prototype ready to go less than 48 hours after visiting the LAFD training facility. Then came time for Jane to assemble her workforce. The first call went out to quilters, since experienced quilters were more likely to have the workspace and tools to help prepare the mask “toolkits”.
The quilters were provided with detailed instructions (from Jen) and the bulk materials to cut the individual mask components. Once all the pieces were cut, Jane coordinated distribution of “toolkits” to 23 volunteer seamstresses across L.A. Each toolkit contained the necessary materials to assemble 20-60 masks.
From Altadena to Culver City, La Crescenta to Silverlake, Jane would spend the next two weeks crisscrossing Los Angeles, dropping off materials and picking up finished masks. She even sustained a tire blowout on the rebound from a pick-up in Granada Hills.
For this unemployed chef and single mom, the effort, expense and sacrifice have all been worth it. “Our firefighters take so many risks to keep us safe. It’s only right that we try to find ways to help give back and show them our appreciation,” expressed Jane. “This has been such a remarkable effort by everyone involved. We’ve assembled more than 500 masks that we plan to deliver to the LAFD by the first week of April. Obviously, we know the firefighters won’t be able to wear these. But at least they can be provided to patients as an added safety precaution.”
NOTE: LAFD safety protocols dictate that any patient exhibiting potential signs/symptoms of COVID-19 be fitted with a surgical mask when being transported via ambulance. The masks donated by these exceptional volunteers have been cleared for this specific use, given volunteers adherence to the group’s cleaning, sterilization and sanitizing guidelines.
COLLEGE STUDENT DESIGNS COOL APPAREL, DONATES PROCEEDS TO LAFD
January 6, 2019 - Los Angeles, CA
College student and aspiring designer Samantha Ko creates unique goods that do good. More specifically, she designs cool apparel and accessories, sells them via her online Etsy shop (CHOREANSS Apparel), and donates the proceeds to worthwhile causes.
Samantha creates fire-inspired gear and donates 100% of the proceeds from this line to the LAFD Foundation as a way to thank the firefighters that helped protect her community during the last few wildfire seasons.
The impact and heartache of the 2017 Skirball Fire hit close to home for Samantha, prompting her to launch her first wave of tees and hoodies.
After November’s Getty Fire struck, she rolled out her second design featuring a Dalmatian with some serious head wear.
Samantha's creative spirit and generosity are powerfully inspiring. Even though a career in the fire service may not be on her horizon, Samantha has surely created a fun and impactful way to help her community.
Photo: Samantha Ko (center) wearing her original hoodie design, accompanied by her twin brothers.
Donors Help Power Air Operations
Funding from donors recently allowed the LAFD Foundation to support Air
Operations with three "Start Pacs." These portable devices provide electricity to the
unit's specialized helicopters for areas such as:
1 – Pre-flight Inspections
Every morning a pre-flight inspection is made on each helicopter. As certain items
on the checklist require electrical power, crews previously had to use the aircraft's
auxiliary power unit (APU). Using the APU could potentially deplete the aircraft's
batteries, which could delay a response to an emergency.
2 – Hoist Maintenance
The LAFD's helicopters are equipped with a powerful hoist for situations such as
rescuing an injured hiker from a mountain top or retrieving someone from a river.
Each time the hoist is used, it must be inspected by mechanics upon the aircraft's
return. This inspection would require using the aircraft's APU for power.
3 – Ground-based Training
Air Operation's flight crews spend hundreds of hours training at their base between
missions. Trainings can range from ‘dry running’ cockpit operations to practicing the
steps to bring a patient inside the aircraft during a hoist rescue. Both these exercises
would require using the aircraft's batteries.
SAVE THE DATE: VALOR 2019
Mark your calendar for Valor: Beyond the Call on November 6, 2019 at the Westin Bonaventure. This night features unforgettable storytelling and recognition of the heroic actions of LAFD firefighters who went above and beyond the call of duty over the past year.
MORE INFO TO COME
New Packs Support the LAFD's Backs
In December 2015 the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) granted the LAFD five specially designed wildland fire engines built to help provide mutual-aid resources against brush fires. For more than three years these engines have been maintained and staffed by a total of 25 LAFD firefighters.
While the Governor's office provided the large equipment, the firefighters that staff the Cal OES fire engines need specialized equipment to support their operations. Fighting brush fires demands long, strenuous hours of work in rugged terrain. This makes the need for new gear tailored to extended operations crucial.
In response to this need, the LAFD Foundation stepped in to provide each of these firefighters a wildland extension pack. This new equipment, which compliments the recently distributed hydration backpacks, offers a wide range of advantages from the previous equipment that these firefighters used.
Out with the Old (bottom left), in with the New (bottom left)
- 1960's-era technology
- Limited water storage (roughly 1.8 liters).
- Bulky fire shelter placement.
- Little to no back support.
- Limited tool storage/placement.
Hydration Backpack + Extension Pack
- Includes a 3.1 liter water bladder that can be filled with ice to keep cool
- Over-the-shoulder hose and mouthpiece allows hydration while working
- Wing pockets can hold an additional 64 ounces of water or fuel per-side
- Fire shelter placement below backpack is located at hand-level
- Dual, velcro sides provide immediate access to fire shelter
- Specially designed spine provides back support and distributes weight across hips
- Load-bearing shelf supports the placement of a hose line