Respiratory therapists on the frontline in fight against COVID-19
It was time, finally, for Jerry Johnson to go home. The 77-year-old man was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late November and had been at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Colorado ever since. Hospital employees formed a clap line, serenading Johnson as he was wheeled out of the facility. It was the first time he’d seen most of his family members, let alone hugged them, in seven weeks.
“This hospital has been amazing,” said Gloria Estus, Johnson’s daughter. “They took such good care of him. This is our next step in my dad getting better.”
“It is great to see somebody that’s beaten it,” said Mark Merritt, a Sky Ridge respiratory therapist.
It’s very personal for Merritt, one of many respiratory therapists who’ve played a critical role in keeping patients with the disease alive. RT’s help patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary problems. Some call them the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
“Never seen anything like it,” Merritt said. “I just never seen that level of death, people just dying so quickly.”
COVID-19 does much of its damage inside the lungs. Inflammation, impaired lung function and pneumonia often make these patients the sickest of the sick.
“They’ll go from just a little bit of cough and not feeling well to all of a sudden their oxygen needs go off the charts,” Merritt said.
It’s up to an RT to try to bring the lungs back to life.
“I love everything about my job,” said Tiffany Cunningham, another respiratory therapist. “Knowing that I just help one patient get off a ventilator is really what drives me to come to work every day.”
When the pandemic first started, the ventilator was the go-to machine for hospitals but as time has gone on, the damage vents can do to the body has become more apparent.
“It’s just complete opposite thinking from when the pandemic started to where we are now,” Cunningham said.
She works at North Suburban Medical Center where invasive intubation of patients has been replaced with high-pressure oxygen whenever possible. This is physical work. RT’s turn patients onto their bellies to improve oxygenation while protected head to toe.
“You have so much stuff on, but you’re here to take care of somebody else, you’re sweating,” Cunningham said. “For now that is what we wear on our shifts 12 hours a day in every room.”
RT’s must be flexible and open to new ideas.
“A good respiratory therapist can get a square peg in a round hole,” Merritt said. “It might take five or six adapters to figure out how to do that but we’ve got plumber in our blood somewhere.”
They deal with stress that comes with caring for people whose families aren’t allowed to be with them.
“For me that’s been something that’s been hard for me,” Cunningham said. “It’s just something that sometimes weighs on you.”
The rewards are working as a team to make scenes like this possible.
“You’ve looked at this patient for weeks and months thinking like this isn’t good, he’s not going to make it, and then miraculously they do,” she said. “It’s such a great feeling and it makes you so excited to see and it’s something very special.”
“All of the staff are heroes, every single one of them,” Estus said.
Significant rehab still lies ahead for Johnson who spent two weeks on a ventilator. But he’s fought off a virus that’s killed so many.
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile,” Merritt said.