At University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center (UM BWMC), respiratory therapists Gina DeGreenia and Tim George help patients with something people often take for granted: breathing.
“We treat patients with breathing problems from birth to the end of life,” said DeGreenia, who has been a respiratory therapist for 34 years. “Sometimes it’s during the same 12-hour shift.”
George said, “I think everyone knows how unnerving it is to have their breath taken away, and how terrifying it is when you cannot get it back. To see the sense of relief in one's voice and demeanor, and knowing that I assisted them to take that next breath with ease, is the moment that I look forward to each and every day.”
That’s the main responsibility of the therapists, whose work has changed drastically since the onset of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“The constant barrage and influx of patients has been unrelenting,” George said. “After going to see one patient and stabilizing them, you have to grab your gear and go stabilize another one. It is physically and mentally exhausting day after day.”
That garb and gear includes N95 masks and PAPRs, battery-operated respirators that provide positive airflow through a filter.
“The PAPR has a hood attached to tubing that fits over our head,” DeGreenia said. “A PAPR hood provides more protection than a N95 mask, so when we are doing aerosolize procedures, it is safer to wear the PAPR.”
Once the therapists are dressed appropriately, they can tend to the needs of coronavirus patients.
“Patients require intense ventilator settings,” DeGreenia said. “These patients are requiring special techniques, such as proning. When a patient is proned, they are flat down on their stomachs for 18 hours of the day while on the ventilator. This treatment helps with the patient's oxygenation. The respiratory therapist role is to maintain the airway and ventilation.”
Procedures have taken a physical and emotional toll on patients. Hospitals have had to ban visitors to keep the virus from spreading, meaning that the extremely sick patients have had to say goodbye to their loved ones via video.
“It is heartbreaking to hold a phone to a patient while the family is FaceTiming their goodbyes,” DeGreenia said. “While we make sure no one dies alone, it is the worst feeling when the family can't hold their hand one last time.”
While the work has been exhausting, both DeGreenia and George praised their colleagues and the community for giving them some much-needed support.
“I work with a great team of ‘superheroes’ at the hospital,” DeGreenia said. “The community has been awesome by sending in meals and thank-you cards. My faith, family and friends have helped me stay positive during this time.”
George has enjoyed extra time at home with his wife, who spent the last few months teaching her St. John the Evangelist first-grade class from home. Walks on the community golf course with his dog, and video conference calls with family members and friends, have helped him decompress.
He praised UM BWMC’s nurses and physicians, as well as community members who have delivered meals donated from local restaurants. Some coworkers have also gone to great lengths to maintain safety and boost morale.
“One coworker made a bunch of survival scrub caps for everyone to wear to keep their hair from getting any bacteria in it, which has been really nice to see,” George said. “One coworker brought in little stuffed teddy bears for all the patients. That was cool because in this social distance era that we’re in, these patients are sick and they can’t have family or visitors come see them, so the gift of a little teddy bear makes their day.”
Those acts of kindness have made a big impact, he said.
“In a way, it is pretty ironic that in this era of social distancing, I feel as if our hospital has become closer and more unified,” he said.
Both George and DeGreenia said they have seen many patients in their 20s and 30s, with no underlying health conditions, infected just as badly as some of the elderly population. Their advice is simple: wear a mask, practice social distancing, and avoid large crowds.
“Now is not the time to let our foot off the gas,” George said. “The less we follow the guidelines set out, the more we have to abide by them. As health care workers, we appreciate the donated meals, the flyovers, and all of the well wishes. What we want most of all is a return to normalcy and to get to see the people that we care about.”