I’m a respiratory therapist, or RRT for short. You’ve probably heard of us before, but unless you or a family member needed one, you probably never gave them much thought. I certainly understand that.
But then came COVID-19. Along with the doctors and nurses, we are side-by-side with these patients. Lungs fill with fluid and mucus, sometimes causing severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In the most critical cases, lungs need help from a ventilator in order to do their job. Respiratory therapists are with patients during every phase of treatment. We also need to be experts at running the various machines that help keep patients alive. (We also routinely helping patients with asthma, emphysema and pneumonia.)
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, things really changed around the hospital, not only for me and other respiratory therapists, but for doctors, nurses, everyone. We’ve all been used to running to rapid responses, running to codes, just jumping right in. You don’t think, you just go.
Today, we pause to make sure we’re completely covered by our personal protective equipment. Run into a room as fast as you did before, you could be the next person in that bed. It’s scary.
My name is Sharon MacEachern (pronounced Ma-CACK-wren.) I’ve been working as a respiratory therapist for 17 years — 16 of them at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, in Charlotte, North Carolina. I first got interested in the field when my husband applied to the respiratory therapy program at Central Piedmont Community College.
I tagged along with him while he shadowed a respiratory therapist as part of his application process. That therapist made it all sound so exciting that I decided to leave nursing and apply to the same program. So, my husband and I went to school together. I’m not so sure if that was a good idea or not — it was a crazy time! Now he works at another hospital.
Health care apparently runs in the family. Our daughter is a nurse at Presbyterian. She told us she didn’t want to go into respiratory, because she couldn't stand all the snot, spit and sputum. I tease her about that sometimes, but she just says if she ever needs someone to suction one of her patients, she knows a good therapist to call.
People with COVID-19 really struggle to breathe, because it attacks their respiratory system, and their lungs become stiff (we use the term “less compliant”). Using a ventilator helps give them some rest, so they can overcome the virus. That’s why you hear so much about ventilators.
No matter what we do, though, some people won’t pull through. That’s especially heartbreaking now, because their loved ones aren’t allowed to gather at the bedside.
Now all they have is us. We laugh with them, we cry with them, we hold their hands — but, we are not their real families. We are just replacements.
That can be difficult. When you spend that much time talking with someone, you get to know them quite well. The patient becomes a part of you, a part of your family. So, when something happens to that person, it really affects you.
Maybe the hardest thing, though, is the look in the eyes of patients who are really struggling with COVID. We deal with death every day. It’s part of our jobs. But the look in these people’s eyes is different — I’ve never seen that level of fear. Maybe it’s because they’re so alone.
Another surprising thing is how quickly these patients can decline. I could be talking to someone just like you’d talk with a friend. But then, within a couple of hours, they’ll suddenly start slipping.
There was one patient who had been extremely ill, but they got better and seemed to be recovering. We all thought, ‘OK, this person’s going to pull through!’ And then, they just didn’t. That really got to some of us. We didn’t see it coming, and, because the virus took them so fast, the loss hit us especially hard.
When patients who weren’t expected to survive surprise us by recovering, though, oh my goodness! The tears we cry then are tears of joy, of happiness that this patient made it. There was one who was really sick, but who came through against all odds. It was just amazing. When that patient left the ICU, we all lined up along the hall and had a celebration.
All this is very emotional, and sometimes I get stressed out. I’m not sleeping well. My husband says he can hear me grinding my teeth at night, which I’ve never done before.
I dwell on COVID-19, more than I should. It creates these moments. I’ll catch myself thinking: “Oh, no! Is my chest hurting? Am I getting short of breath? Can I taste that food?”
But, once you’re at work, those thoughts fly out the window because you’re so focused on the patients.
For me, one of the best ways to cope with all the added stress is to connect with people. My husband is my greatest support — we talk things over all the time. Being able to lean on my family at home and my church family has helped tremendously. I pray a lot.
I’m also a member of a Facebook group for respiratory therapists from across the nation. My colleagues and I talk about what we’re going through, but we also tell some jokes and have a few laughs, because, if we didn’t have laughter, we would be having a really hard time.
Fighting the virus is a team effort, of course. Not everyone is nose-to-nose with patients like we are, but they’re exposed to the virus in different ways. And, every day, each one of them makes a choice to put themselves on the line.
This is what we’ve dedicated our lives to do. We care for people, in whatever capacity that may be. Whatever needs to be done, we’ll do it.
As told to Healthy Headlines writer, Hannah Six.
Top photo: Sharon MacEachern, right spends a lot of her time in the Presbyterian Medical Center 3rd floor ICU wing these days. Nurse Jessica Putnam, left.