Respiratory Therapists Exhausted By Pandemic Surges

Another group of healthcare workers are also facing the current surge head on: respiratory therapists.
Posted at 11:33 AM, Dec 12, 2020

Claudia Ruble is one of the 150,000 respiratory therapists in the U.S. Her days at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood Colorado during this COVID surge are a roller coaster. 

"Our numbers tend to vary even by day, even by the beginning of the shift to the end of the shift. Our numbers have definitely been going up," Ruble, Respiratory Therapist, Swedish Medical Center said.

States away, at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois, Brian Emmerich rapidly works on charts in between seeing patients, 80 percent are fighting COVID, he says.

 "It's a daily hourly effort to try to keep up with the times and the needs to address the pandemic," he said.

The days are long. There’s overtime, extra shifts, and a struggle sometime for these health care heroes to unwind when they leave the hospital.

"It is difficult at times to disconnect. You do see some sad situations and you're doing your best. We have so many staff that have stories to tell, the time they spent with patients to try to help them work through their fears and their concerns,"  Emmerich, Associate Manager of Respiratory Care, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, said. 

"No one can have visitors that have COVID-19. It's just a lonely place to be," Ruble said. 

"I am very concerned about mental and physical burnout. The mental and physical battles that they're fighting for 12, 16 hours a day and going back day after day and doing it and not seeming to see the end of the storm or the light at the end of the tunnel can be very devastating," Tim Meyers, Chief Business Officer, American Association for Respiratory Care said.  

Tim Meyers with the American Association for Respiratory Care says back in March they set up a fund for the families of any respiratory therapist who died from COVID-19. So far they’ve paid it out more than two dozen times. 

"We're up to twenty-five respiratory therapists that have died across the U.S. from contracting coronavirus and many, many more that have actually been in their own intensive care units on ventilators," he said.

And all the while, throughout the surge, more patients, more needs.There’s a shortage of these clinical experts. Before the pandemic, Meyers says there was about a 10% respiratory therapist shortage nationally. Many of the workers are Boomers, and the number of graduates don’t fill jobs that will be left vacant. But both respiratory therapists we spoke to say while exhausted, they plan to keep working. Because of why they got into the field in the first place: to help people. 

"There's only so many of us and we definitely need more respiratory therapists out there," Ruble said.