Respiratory therapist Kerry Shutte has seen up close what the rest of us don’t want to imagine.

“I work a lot in the ICU, so I’ve seen the worst of the worst of COVID,” she said. “I know that what I'm seeing, I do not want.”

That’s why she got the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it was offered to her.

Respiratory therapist Kerry Shute
Respiratory therapist Kerry Shutte

“We don't always have the best outcomes in ICU,” Shutte said. “And even when we have good outcomes – and patients get to go home – many are going to be dealing with underlying long-term issues. And maybe for the rest of their lives. With COVID, you never know what your outcome will be.”

Respiratory therapists are a key part of the battle against COVID-19. The virus can cause severe respiratory illness in both lungs, forcing a patient to be admitted for intensive care. Lungs fill with fluid and debris, 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.

Hundreds of respiratory therapists work throughout the Novant Health healthcare system, routinely helping patients with asthma, emphysema and pneumonia.

Shutte knows people are all tired of staying home and wearing masks. She is, too. She also has to do more than mask. She suits up in personal protective equipment, or PPE. She has two children at home – one in fourth and one in sixth grade – and is both teacher and mom (as well as ICU respiratory therapist).

“If we want a chance to get back to living somewhat of a normal life, you've got to stop thinking this isn’t real,” she said of people who think of COVID-19 as a hoax or something akin to the flu. “The only way we're going to get back some sense of normalcy is getting more people to take this vaccine.”

She’s heard the naysayers and wants them to know: “Vaccines are one of our greatest tools to combat disease. Please stop thinking there are going to be horrible outcomes from taking the vaccine because it was developed too soon. We’ve had scientists all over the world working on this one particular vaccine.”

It was tested on 70,000 patients, went through multiple layers of scientific review and has now been administered to millions of Americans and others around the world. Each day, hundreds more Novant Health team members are rolling up their sleeves for the vaccine.

Protecting yourself against COVID; protecting others

Respiratory Therapist Candace Yow
Respiratory therapist Candace Yow

Shutte’s manager, Candace Yow, also got the vaccine – the Pfizer one, like Shutte did – when it was her turn, although she was initially reluctant. The respiratory supervisor at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte is currently doing double duty as interim respiratory manager at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

“The vaccine came out so quick,” Yow said. “But the more I thought about it – and the more I saw at work – I felt like I had to get it. It was partly to protect my 75-year-old mom who moved in with me a few years after my dad passed away. I also wanted to protect my 2-year-old granddaughter.”

Travis Furr, a respiratory therapist at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital, also got the Pfizer vaccine and for the same reasons – to protect his loved ones and the community. He had a sore arm after the first dose and body aches after the second one – but nothing Advil couldn’t help.

“At first, I worried about the efficacy of the vaccine just because of how expedited it was,” he said. “But I did my research and felt like it was the right choice. Getting the vaccine outweighed the risk of getting COVID.”

Respiratory therapist Travis Furr
Respiratory therapist Travis Furr

Furr knows that children aren’t immune from getting really sick from COVID-19. “Kids are already scared because they’re in the ICU setting,” he said of his young patients. “There's a fair amount of mental and physical pain that goes along with that.”

Yow, too, has seen firsthand that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. “It's more than older people who get sick with it,” she said. “I've had patients in their 20s and their 30s – with no other serious health problems – who get sick. You can’t pinpoint who will get sick and who won’t or how sick they’ll get.”

‘Never seen this kind of sickness’

She’s heard people dismiss COVID-19 as nothing more than the flu. “I've been doing this for 16 years,” she said. “I've lived through flu. I lived through H1N1, and I've never seen this kind of sickness. Ever.”

“Some decline pretty quick,” she said. “They just don't have the capacity to breathe. A lot of critical COVID patients are going into kidney failure.”

If people could see what Yow and Shutte see every day, they might all be standing in line, wearing masks, for the vaccine.

Yow experienced no side effects from her first dose and a few from her second dose, but they were gone within 48 hours. “I would do it again,” she said of getting the vaccine.

Shutte didn’t have any adverse reaction to her first dose. It was “even easier than the flu shot,” she said. “I just had my second shot (in early January), and the day after, I woke up with that hit-by-a-bus feeling where every bone in my body ached. I had no fever or chills, and by 2 in the afternoon, it was gone.”

She wasn’t worried; she knew having aches and flu-like symptoms for a day or two is a possible side effect of the vaccine. At Novant Health, the phrase “expected effect” is commonly used because the reactions are expected. They also show the vaccine is taking effect.

Yow, Furr and Shutte continue to suit up in PPE and treat COVID-19 patients. No longer waiting for the vaccine, they’re now waiting for mass distribution and hoping most eligible Americans decide to protect themselves and their communities by getting a shot in the arm.

“Everyone should do their own research about vaccine safety,” Furr said. “And keep social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a mask. Whether people believe that COVID is severe or not, it’s here, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. It's up to us to stop the spread.”

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