I’m a Respiratory Therapist—Here’s What I’m Seeing on the Front Lines

Daily life is a roller coaster of worry, hope, and heartbreak.

I am a respiratory therapist. The simplest way I can describe my job is that I help people breathe. As a clinical liaison serving a number of hospitals in metropolitan Detroit, I coordinate with hospice, chronic respiratory failure patients, cardiopulmonary patients, and neuromuscular patients from the hospital. Then I set the patients up at home on invasive and non-invasive ventilators. We’re in high demand, and there aren’t enough of us—especially right now with the coronavirus pandemic.

What I do is important, but I’m terrified to go to work every day. I am a very single parent to two teenage daughters—my ex lives across the country. Every day I go to work, I am risking my health and my daughters’ health. Even in the best-case scenario, if I contracted COVID-19, I wouldn’t be able to help my children and continue as a respiratory therapist because this illness is airborne and very contagious. Of course, I don’t want my girls to get sick. They’re not allowed to leave the house for the same reason. Our governor just extended our stay-at-home order until the end of April. Michigan has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. This is no joke, and the crisis is far from being over.

I don’t have enough PPE

For the last three weeks, I have been wearing the same N95 mask because there is not enough PPE (protective personal equipment), and we don’t have spares. I hope to God we get more soon. All we have now is a machine that uses UV rays to clean the mask, which takes two hours. It’s not sanitized, but it’s better than nothing. The people in our communities are amazing—they’re handcrafting mask covers and donating it to us. They’re also bringing food and praying for us.

The most important thing I do to protect myself and my girls are my daily rituals when I return home from work. I get out of the car, I Lysol it and then I wipe down the inside and outside handles. Next, I walk to the back of the house, grab a trash bag, strip naked, put my clothes in the trash bag, and leave my shoes outside. I toss my clothes into the washing machine and jump into the shower. I don’t greet the girls or touch anything until I’ve completed my routine.

While health care workers need to take extra precautions, everyone should be cleaning these 12 things after returning from the outside world.

COVID-19 progresses very quickly

The hospitals are full, and they’re not testing people unless they have other comorbidities. So the “positive count” of COVID-19 cases is not accurate. I have seen a multitude of scenarios. Most people, who are normally healthy, are recovering from COVID-19 with the aid of oxygen and nebulizer treatments. Yet patients coming in with diabetes, obesity, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and lung disease aren’t as lucky. There are also people who are younger and normally healthy who don’t recover. The virus is scary, and it isn’t just dangerous for older people. It actually doesn’t care about your age, at all.

COVID-19 progresses very quickly to acute respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia, and multisystem organ failure. The X-rays of these people are a complete whiteout, which means their lungs are full of fluid. Once a patient has double-lung pneumonia, it’s challenging to move any air through the lungs. The virus is deadly at this point. We are learning now that during a Code Blue—meaning, the patient is in full cardiac or respiratory failure and will die without any action—most rapid-response teams are now only doing one round of CPR and calling it.

Here’s what people who are infected with coronavirus want you to know.

Other patients are being sent home to free up beds

The patients who are being “kicked out” of the hospital that I serve are lung-transplant patients who are healing or who have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) with complications and/or have a tracheostomy in place. The hospitals are filling so fast, they are kicking them out sooner to heal at home because they are at high risk for getting COVID-19. Yet home care is scarce right now. These people are ventilator dependent, and normally, they would recover in the hospital. Lung-transplant patients have a very strict medication and therapy regimen. The families are terrified to care for them because they are on home ventilators. But my patients’ families have my personal phone number, which they can call 24/7.

Patients are dying without loved ones by their side

No one is allowed to come in with a potentially positive COVID patient, so relatives or friends are dropping people off at the curb of the hospital. My colleagues told me about a husband and wife in their 60s who pulled up to the hospital. She was tested, declined rapidly, and put on a vent. She died within six hours—before we even got the swab back. The wife said, “goodbye” to her husband from the car, not knowing it would be the last time. I can’t even begin to tell you the sadness we all feel in the field. Patients are dying, and they can’t be with their family or even speak to them because they are intubated and can’t talk. Our nurses are calling the families of dying patients, so they can FaceTime and say their last words and goodbyes.

Here’s another firsthand account from a Canadian ER nurse who’s doing her part to fight coronavirus.

Please take this seriously!

Our nursing staff, doctors, respiratory therapists, and all supporting health care workers are really joining forces and strong-arming this thing, uniting all faculties. But we can’t do this on our own. Please, please stay home! If you are still working, need to get medication, need to check on your grandparents, or you are completely out of food—that’s all understandable. But don’t go out because you want ice cream or because you are bored. When people go out because they are bored and then get sick, they are exposing more people and health care workers. If you do have to go out, wear a mask. Right now, there are so many unknowns about the novel coronavirus.

We simply cannot afford to lose any more medical staff to this because they are sick and unable to work. Remember, this virus can take seven to 25 days to finish. That doesn’t include the extra days needed just to get your energy level back enough to go back to the war zone. I remind myself every day that my colleagues, my family, and my friends are all in this thing together. I don’t just live in Detroit—I am Detroit. Detroiters are strong, and we will survive.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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