When Cristen Reyes starts a shift as a team leader in Respiratory Care at Cox South, she knows she is going to make a difference for her patients.
That’s been true the entire decade she has worked as a respiratory therapist, but never more so than in the battle with COVID-19.
“I have always loved what I do. This has further enforced that. God put me where I needed to be. God knew I was strong enough to endure this,” she says. “It makes me proud to give patients a level of care they deserve. I am exactly where I need to be.”
As experts in lung care, respiratory therapists have been in high demand. They were on the front lines of the first surges of patients late last year, and now they are working to battle the rise of the delta variant.
"The people I work with are mentally and physically exhausted," Reyes says. "We thought there was an end in sight to COVID. It got better for a short while, but now we are battling this variant and a lack of staff."
Earlier in the pandemic, COVID-19 patients tended to be older, often with comorbidities. Now, the patients Reyes sees are younger with no major comorbidities.
They have one thing in common: They are almost entirely unvaccinated.
“We were not anticipating this massive Round 2,” she says. “Now, we have the vaccines. We thought that after seeing so many deaths last year, people would get vaccinated.”
Vaccination: ‘The only sure way’
It is a safe bet that anyone who has seen what Reyes and her colleagues have experienced would want to get the vaccine.
Reyes recalls working with COVID-19 patients last December, before the vaccine was available, and seeing just how devastating the disease can be.
Treatments for COVID-19 are extremely limited. Even the best approaches in a respiratory therapist’s skillset would fail in the face of the new virus.
“We are used to fixing patients. That’s why this is so hard,” Reyes says. “Patients would beg you to not let them die. I tried to give them comfort. They were thankful to have someone hold their hand or rub their forehead.”
Knowing the reality of COVID-19 made the idea of getting a vaccine an obvious choice.
“I understand people’s hesitation. In health care, we were concerned about the vaccine, too,” Reyes says. “But there is one thing we did know: We do not want to die from contracting COVID-19. I got vaccinated for myself, and for the people around me: my little boy, my grandma.”
Over the last year and a half, Reyes has seen the long-term damage COVID-19 leaves behind in patients who survive. Once lung tissue is damaged, it doesn’t regenerate. Patients often leave with home oxygen, and a drastically altered lifestyle.
“If you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything else,” Reyes says. “We see patients who get winded just sitting up in bed. They may not be able to work again.”
One lesson is clear: Prevention is the best medicine.
Even now, Reyes still meets hospitalized patients who think a certain treatment, like BiPAP or ventilation, is the “secret to beating COVID.”
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets.
“These are supportive devices. They support a patient’s breathing. They are not a therapy to cure COVID-19,” she says. “The vaccine is the only sure way (to be protected). You may still get sick, but you aren’t likely to die.
“If you don’t get vaccinated, it is Russian Roulette in terms of who lives and who dies.”
‘The strongest people I have ever met’
The pandemic has brought Reyes and the team the sickest patients they have ever cared for. With a new surge of cases upon us, many caregivers are exhausted.
Even though the days are tough, so are the team members.
“As a group, nothing can tear us down. Our teamwork is exemplary. These are the strongest people I have ever met.
“We are constantly running all day,” Reyes says. “You have to stay positive, and not dwell on what you can’t control. The most important part is empathizing with our patients. There are patients fighting for their lives. That is rougher than anything I am going through.
“I love what I do. It gives me a huge sense of purpose – and isn’t that what people want in life? This has taught us to persevere and push past our limits,” she says. “These RTs are most mentally tough people I have ever worked with.
“Everyone is proud to take care of all patients. We never give up on the patients who need us the most.”