Healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 for over a year. We often hear from doctors and nurses about physically and mentally exhausting work to save lives.
But there is another facet of the pandemic, not nearly as visible. Those working closely with the most critically ill patients, often unable to breathe on their own.
An El Paso husband recently posted a photograph to Twitter showing the physical toll the pandemic has taken on his wife. It is a snapshot that captured one of COVID-19’s unsung heroes.
Delma Sosa is a registered respiratory therapist. Her profession has been critical in the care of many patients who’ve contracted the virus.
“Overwhelming,” she said when asked what it was like to be an RRT right now. “Overwhelming and burning out. At times where you just need some time off.”
Respiratory therapists provide breathing treatments for patients with lung illnesses. They manage ventilators and intubate patients who can no longer breathe on their own. It is a job that cannot be done at a distance.
“It’s actually gowning-up for every patient and getting into their rooms,” she said.
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She’s traveled to hospitals across the state and just returned home to El Paso after spending nearly a month at Dallas Kindred Central’s long-term center for COVID-19 patients.
“I will remember the part of ... the patients,” she said. “It was a 60-bed facility and usually every day there were 60 patients there.”
Sosa said at times, she has worked six, 12-hour shifts a week. Tough, too, has been the toll on her mental health.
“There are times I see different patients that have passed,” she said. “And it’s hard to talk to somebody that’s not in the field sometimes because the emotion is there.”
The Association for Respiratory Care advocates for respiratory therapists.
Associate Executive Director Shawna Strickland told NBC 5 that while ‘job burnout’ is not new to the healthcare profession, it has become worse during the pandemic.
“Staffing is absolutely an issue and burnout is absolutely an issue,” she said. “It can be difficult to let go. It could be difficult to watch our patients suffer in such ways.”
Across the nation, at least 25 respiratory therapists have died of COVID-19, including Maisha Oni Muhammad-Brinkley in Dallas.
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Strickland worries the shortage will become more pronounced because of respiratory therapists’ proximity to infected patients because of “the higher likelihood that our healthcare providers that are going to be exposed to and develop complication from COVID-19.”
RRTs also work 12-hours shifts or more.
“Our teams are challenged with technical issues like not enough equipment, not enough space, not enough PPE, too many patients,” said Strickland.
In his Twitter post, Sosa’s husband made a public plea: “Please be considerate of all health care workers. They put their lives on the line every single day. Please don’t be selfish and wear a mask.”