Thank a Respiratory Therapist

As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly treads onward, we are beginning to see signs of improvement throughout the country. This is in part due to vaccine distribution, along with masking up and social distancing. There is still a long road ahead, but we are seeing signs of improvement and optimism. As we all know, this virus impacts our respiratory tract, with the intensity of symptoms varying greatly depending on age and other health factors. It's time that we recognize one of the most overlooked and most important roles in our healthcare system today: respiratory therapists.

Respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals trained to observe, educate, and treat patients with pulmonary and cardiopulmonary disorders. This includes patients with minor and severe breathing problems, patients on ventilators, and other respiratory conditions. During the pandemic, the biggest tasks for respiratory therapists have been managing ventilators and intubating patients. Mechanical ventilators are essentially a substitution for the body’s natural way of respiration. In a healthy body, the diaphragm contracts and creates negative pressure, or suction, that draws oxygen into our lungs. COVID-19 disrupts this process and prevents the lungs from receiving enough oxygen. Mechanical ventilation starts with intubating a tube through the mouth, nose, or trachea into the airway. This creates a stable, reliable, hollow tube to safely deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the lungs. The ventilator itself then pushes air through the tube into the lungs. This process allows the body’s respiratory muscles to rest and not have to work very hard to breathe because the ventilator is essentially acting as the lungs. This also protects the patient from injury from aspiration. It should be noted that mechanical ventilators are NOT a method of healing or fighting the novel coronavirus. It is simply a treatment to allow the body to rest while medications and other treatments actively work to fight off the infection. Ideally, we want patients to be off of the ventilator and breathing on their own as quickly as possible, but this process does not happen overnight. In the case of this virus, there haven't been many that have come off of ventilators. The nature of the virus leaves many patients in the hospital for long durations and many are on ventilators. This requires respiratory therapists to divide their time among many patients, both on and off ventilators. As cases were surging, we heard many reports about ventilator shortages and choices having to be made regarding which patients get them. Respiratory therapists have been thrown in the most dangerous and dire area of patient care. They, along with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, are selflessly placing themselves in the most risk of contracting the virus. These patients can be on ventilators for anywhere from one week to upwards of four or five. Many of these patients are nonresponsive while on the ventilators, further creating a dilemma regarding availability for new patients. Many respiratory therapists have noted that the effects of COVID-19 on their patients is much different than other diseases they have previously treated. They are more often unresponsive, and when they do become responsive it takes much longer than normal. Some respiratory therapists are having to use unconventional ventilation methods, such as pressure control or airway pressure release ventilation. There are two other types of care common to coronavirus patients in addition to mechanical ventilation: nasal cannula therapy and CPAP or BiPAP. It should be noted that these two methods are nowhere near as important as mechanical ventilation, but still an important aspect of the everyday tasks of respiratory therapists during this pandemic. Nasal cannula therapy, particularly heated high-flow nasal cannula therapy, involves providing 100% oxygen at a very high rate. It is a substitute for patients who are NOT in critical condition and are suffering sligh