MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s a plot made for the movies: A Minnesota paramedic shares the frightening story of his 3,000 mile journey to treat COVID patients, that landed him behind bars.
As WCCO found, it all started with a call for help from the federal government. It was that phone call that sent David Pecora scrambling last year.
“When the government wants to do something they can do it very quickly and very efficiently,” Pecora said.
A paramedic for Bemidji Ambulance and a physician’s assistant, he had volunteered years earlier for an event in Washington, D.C. In doing so, he signed an agreement that he’d be available in case of emergency.
“The federal government is so large I never thought I’d hear from them again honestly,” Pecora said.
Last March, just as pandemic news began to break, he did.
“You’re going to be deployed to California as a COVID-19 rapid response team,” Pecora said.
Twelve hours later he was on a plane bound for San Francisco.
“Their ICU was completely full with COVID patients,” Pecora remembered.
For six weeks, his team did what they could fighting the unknown, with no real road map.
“What are you doing, what’s working, what’s not and trying to come up with a plan day by day,” he said.
Pecora witnessed nearly 50 patients die in that California ICU.
“We became very close to these patients we were all they had,” he added.
But, it was a new assignment weeks later that proved the most dangerous.
“They selected 140 of us to go to Curacao,” Pecora explained.
An island country in the Caribbean, Curacao’s government had asked the U.S. to help in its fight against COVID-19. Pecora says the people were resistant to many of their recommendations.
He taught classes to explain the reasons to wear masks, restrict airflow, and keep hospital visitors out.
“That was my way of trying to explain to them how deadly this disease is by showing them pictures,” he said. “When some of the hospital employees themselves got sick and some of them died then it got everybody’s attention their friends their coworkers are dying.”
One month after convincing staff to make changes, Curacao’s government cut the salary of most of the island’s workforce to make up for closures and new mandates. Pecora says that’s when residents began to think the money was actually lining the Americans’ pockets.
“The people who were originally very friendly welcoming turned against us and we became a target,” he said.
Barbed wire fencing and troops tried to protect his team. Still, last August he was arrested leaving the hospital.
“They put me in the police car they’re laughing, talking, looking at me through the cage. I’m bouncing around,” he recalled.
Pecora landed in a remote jail and remembers being thrown into the yard.
“These guys surround me threw me to the ground, ripped my clothes off and they’re just beating me,” he said.
For two days he was given moldy bread to eat. Until, he was suddenly thrown out and forced to find his way to his hotel after the U.S. consulate got involved.
The next day Pecora flew back to Bemidji to a community grateful for his service.
He still struggles looking back on those months away as he hopes now to help heal much closer to home.
Pecora told us there are still things the federal government has told him he can’t talk about from his time in Curacao. He’s struggled with depression after all he’s been through this last year.
Pecora hopes sharing his story encourages other health care workers to seek help. A state program is available here.
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Author: WCCO | CBS Minnesota