As health care workers race to get more ventilators for people sickened by COVID-19, there is another concern: Will there be enough respiratory therapists to operate those ventilators?
They are often the unsung heroes in the ICU, men and women who work to keep patients breathing when they can’t breathe on their own.
And they are the ones called to the bedsides of a growing number of patients who are the most critical – needing help to breathe – because of the ravages from COVID-19.
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“We are frontline. I mean, we are oftentimes a person that sticks the tube into the lungs to intubate the patient,” said Tom Kallstrom, a respiratory therapist and head of the Irving-based American Association for Respiratory Care.
Kallstrom said that for the first time in his career he’s confronting questions about whether some cities will have the staff for the number of ventilators needed.
“I’m hoping that this won’t get to that point. I don’t know. I guess it’s anybody’s guess as to how this is going to happen,” he said.
Nationwide, there are about 155,000 respiratory therapists, with about 14,000 working in Texas.
To meet the needs of the crisis, Kallstrom is attempting to create a virtual strike force, rushing staff to cities hardest hit and attempting to recruit other therapists out of retirement.
He’s even looking at ways to deploy those who are studying the ways to breathe life into the most seriously ill.
“We just put a survey out to every school in the nation yesterday to find out what do they have, the capabilities of sending students to the hospitals as well,” Kallstrom said.
The need is most dire in places like New York where doctors are nearing life-and-death decisions on who will get a ventilator.
In Texas, state officials have not said how many ventilators are available, but NBC 5 Investigates obtained those numbers from the two large public hospitals in the DFW area.
Parkland Hospital in Dallas has 118 ventilators while JPS in Fort Worth has 68.
But hospitals throughout North Texas say they plan to shuffle ventilators to places that need them the most…and to find more therapists to run them.
“Trust me, our human resources leaders at all of our hospitals and systems are working 24-7, to look at existing staff, where we’re short on staff, and what we can do to beef up that staff,” said Stephen Love with the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council.
Respiratory therapists are used to caring for more than one patient at a time in busy hospital ICUs, but the coronavirus pandemic is testing their limits.
“It’s exhausting. It’s hard work. It’s mentally and physically hard, even without a pandemic,” Kallstrom said.
In recent days, there has even been talk about putting two patients on the same ventilator, something Kallstrom’s group says cannot be done safely.
Still, just the consideration of doing such a thing shows how desperate some fear the crisis could become.