Physician assistant by day, police officer by night: How one man is risking his life to help others

Yahoo Life sat down with Dennis Canale, a hero on the frontline who doubles as a physician assistant at Staten Island University Hospital Northwell and a detective with the NYPD emergency service unit.

Video Transcript

DENNIS CANALE: 9/11 was watching one big horror movie. This is like watching a horror series on a TV show. It just keeps going on and on and on. And hopefully we're on the downswing. I'd like to see the final episode and close it, never watch it again.

My name is Denis Canale. I'm a physician assistant with Northwell Health Staten Island University Hospital South. I also am a detective with the New York City Police Department, working for the emergency service unit for the past 22 years. I enjoy what I do. I love both my jobs. I was premed in college, took my MCATs, and didn't go to medical school because I wanted to go to the police department.

As time went along, I became a physician assistant because I wanted to be involved with helping people in the medical aspect of things and I had a love of medicine. Both of my loves basically come together with helping people. So our typical day, we come in in the morning as the physician assistants that cover the floor along with the attending doctor. We do a pre-round on the floor to see the patients we've had from the day before and any changes that they've gone through.

It's a very intense atmosphere. The floor I'm on is an extended critical care floor, so we had a lot of what we call rapid responses and code blues. Code blue usually means somebody is in cardiac arrest. A rapid response means they're having a critical issue that needs to be addressed urgently to prevent them from getting worse.

It's a whole unified team that responds to give the patient the absolute best chance they can at survival. We make sure we have people in constant contact with the family. And the whole psychiatry team, and bringing them into this, helping us manage the family. So they would give a call every morning. Staff would get involved from the psychology teams to make contact early on with the families so there was that constant reach to them to keep them involved in their loved one's care.

The hardest part is losing a patient. I don't think anybody comes to medicine and seeing so much death in one instance. I compare it to 9/11, because the amount of death is just so massive. And it's just-- it's unfair. It really is. Putting in so many hours of work into these patients and pulling them off the edge so many times, and then in the end, you know, multi-system organ failure and just the disease process destroys the body. You end up losing a patient. And they become a part of you. They truly do. It becomes a part of who you are, and to lose someone hurts a lot. It's destructive.

There's no denying it. As stoic as anybody can be, it's crippling. I think what-- that hurts. It hurts watching your co-workers, the nurses upstairs put in hours of time managing these patients. The people that help out on the floors-- the clerical workers, the cleaners, the construction staff here, the doctors, the physician assistants.

Everybody has their breakdown moment. I went through it as a cop when I worked Ground Zero at 9/11. And I lost a lot of colleagues. I've lost a lot of colleagues through the years in the police department from illness secondary to 9/11. Been to too many funerals over the years in the past 22 years. And it hurts. It all hurts.

There's been times over the past couple of weeks I kind of felt down a little. And in my mind, I start to feel feverish. And then I check everything and everything's fine, and you take your vitamins. I don't think it's a worry personally for me that I think about. And I think that's just who I am.

I think with the police department, the same thing. People go, how do you guys run towards gunfire? How do you run towards collapsing buildings? You don't think about yourself. You don't think about-- you don't sit there and have that second thought, that worry. Just like here, some patient goes bad, you take the proper PPE precautions and then you run right in to do what you're trained and skilled to do.

So I think a day that goes by where everybody makes it through the day, all of our patients make it through the day is a huge internal celebration. It's kind of a good feeling inside to think that you've pushed through your eight-hour shift, your 12-hour shift and that everybody's made it through strong.

We definitely feel the numbers improving. There's no doubt about it. It's grossly obvious. The amount of beds are starting to creep open, which is a good thing. We're starting to see less people in-house on ventilators, which is a positive thing. And let's continue to isolate. Let's continue to social distance.

It's just a little bit out of life to preserve life. And I think it's something that all of us as human beings can try to achieve, something that's so obtainable and so easy to treat. Just keep social distancing and keep the policies in place for a little bit. Not forever. Things never less forever.