INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — More than 5,000 respiratory therapists are working on the front lines in Indiana.
Described as the “unsung heroes” in the fight against coronavirus, respiratory therapists are the medical staff that intubate patients and monitor their breathing while on a ventilator.
“We look at the blood that a patient has in their body and make sure what we’re doing for them is actually helping them,” said Jeff Hunsucker with the Indiana Society for Respiratory Care.
Hunsucker said in many cases, RTs receive a patient’s x-rays before the doctor and then advise further on how to treat the individual.
RTs have a risky job because they are around coronavirus patients all day long and in close contact.
“The respiratory therapist probably spends the most time in the room with a patient that has a respiratory disease, like COVID-19, more than the doctor and sometimes more than the nurse,” Hunsucker told CBS4.
“We have to clean out their lungs if they’re coughing, so we will send a catheter down and suction them. That tube can also be dislodged so we’ll go back in there and try to make sure it’s in the place it needs to be.”
Hunsucker said one respiratory therapist put their life on the line recently, when a patient needed to be intubated immediately.
“They did not put their PPE on, went into the room, and they were sent home,” he said.
That respiratory therapist tested negative for the virus, but others haven’t been so lucky. Hunsucker said one RT was severely sick for weeks. Another ended up on a ventilator themselves. That individual is now at home and recovering.
Healthy or not, respiratory therapists are facing tough physical and emotional demands.
“Even before COVID, working with patients that are on ventilators that are sick and cant breathe?” Hunsucker pointed out. “It can be wearing.”
Hunsucker said a lot of RTs are staying with patients as they take their final breaths, especially since coronavirus patients cannot see their families.
“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is going to be hard during this time because you may lose so many,” he told CBS4.
Hunsucker said another challenge that RTs tend to face is how often they have to change gear. They are required to take off all of their PPE and then put on new protection in between patients.
Respiratory therapists have to take off their masks, goggles and face shields first. Then they take off their gloves. They take their gowns off and wash their hands. They wash their hands and head out into the hall. They wash their hands again. Then, they put on new PPE and head into the next room.
“That is time consuming. It is very daunting to do that for every patient, but we have to,” Hunsucker said.
Right now, while Indiana is well-equipped with PPE and ventilators, Hunsucker said hospitals are preparing for another surge.
“When we open up in the next few weeks, we’re probably going to see spikes up and down, so we are prepared,” he explained. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, we need this ventilator or this supply here.’ We’re able to do that now.”
He said hospitals always try to have at least one backup ventilator in stock, just in case.