Respiratory therapists are clinicians who take care of patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders. At Lexington Medical Center, respiratory therapists are part of the care team for every COVID-19 patient. One is Julie Henson, RRT, RCP, respiratory care manager.
“They can’t see our face. They can’t see if we’re smiling. They have to read our eyes.”
That’s something that’s overwhelmingly difficult for respiratory therapists at Lexington Medical Center like Julie. Before the pandemic, they could sit, talk with and treat patients without being hidden behind a mask. These days, they wear full PPE.
More than 70 respiratory therapists work throughout Lexington Medical Center in the Emergency department, inpatient units and ICU. They provide COVID-19 patients with nebulizers, nasal cannulas, inhalers and – in the most serious cases – ventilators.
The therapists note that COVID-19 is different than other respiratory illnesses because of the way patients struggle to get enough oxygen. And sometimes, a COVID-19 patient takes two steps forward only to take one step back.
But the most remarkable - and heartbreaking - difference is that patients can’t have family members visit the COVID-19 units.
“Before, we weren’t their ‘person,’ but now we are,” Julie said. “We become their family because their family can’t see them. We are much more emotionally attached than we ever were before the pandemic.”
Staff members have used their own cell phones to FaceTime family members. A respiratory therapist who speaks Spanish visited a Spanish-speaking patient daily because she felt such a connection with him.
There have been tears, too. Some of the respiratory therapists wear PAPR, which stands for Powered Air Purifying Respirator. It’s a system that includes a sealed helmet to protect clinicians from contaminated air.
“One therapist told me, ‘PAPR dries your tears and they don’t know you’ve been crying,’” Julie said.
With every challenge, Lexington Medical Center’s respiratory therapists have stepped up to the plate with abundance – changing workdays to accommodate schedules, adding extra hours and illustrating how to be fantastic team players.
With a front-row seat to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have a strong message for community members.
“COVID-19 is not a joke,” Julie said. “It can not only affect your lungs, but also your heart and blood. Please wash your hands and wear your mask in public. Do the right things. Take care of each other. Be smart.”