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Respiratory therapists in grueling fight against COVID-19

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune John Daiss, a respiratory therapist at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, leaves the hospital Wednesday at the end of his 12-hour shift.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune John Daiss, a respiratory therapist at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, leaves the hospital Wednesday at the end of his 12-hour shift.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune John Daiss, a respiratory therapist at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, leaves the hospital Wednesday at the end of his 12-hour shift.
Medical workers race to try and save patients

Respiratory therapist John Daiss starts work at 6:30 a.m. and gets off at 7 p.m. — if there isn’t another patient crashing in the hospital who desperately needs his help.

“Everyone’s working so hard. People don’t realize what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Daiss, a respiratory therapist at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford.

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Medical workers are struggling to keep up as the Rogue Valley grapples with the area’s worst COVID-19 surge of the pandemic.

Respiratory therapists help patients who are having trouble breathing. Their patients range from those with chronic emphysema to near-drowning victims to premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

With the COVID-19 virus ravaging people’s lungs and airways, local respiratory therapists are in a grueling marathon that feels like a never-ending series of sprints.

“We’re working side by side with nurses all day long, triaging down the row of patients,” Daiss said. “We have an emergency in one room, resolve it, and the next minute, there’s another emergency. We’re constantly running back and forth providing emergency care along with doing the routine duties of the day. It’s a brutal time right now. Everyone’s working as a team, and we’re using every tool, but often there’s not a lot else we can do to save people.”

Medical workers aren’t likely to see a significant drop in the workload anytime soon, according to a new forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.

Oregon hospitals will remain under severe strain from the current COVID-19 surge, with a gradual decline in hospitalizations over the next two to three months, OHSU said.

“It looks like we are seeing the flattening of cases we had hoped for,” said Peter Graven, lead data scientist in OHSU’s Business Intelligence Unit. “However, we are still projecting it will be a very long time before hospitalization levels return to more manageable levels.”

Daiss has been a respiratory therapist for 10 years, but he’s never seen so many patients in the hospital and so many needing to be placed on oxygen or ventilators.

“In the last month or so, it’s skyrocketed with the amount of patients needing critical care. I’ve never seen anything this bad. There’s nothing comparable,” he said.

Daiss said patients on oxygen delivery devices are needing higher and higher levels of oxygen, and they keep getting sicker. No matter how much oxygen and medication they receive, many patients still feel like they’re suffocating.

“The ones that are awake — before it escalates to being put on a ventilator — they’re suffering. They can’t breathe. I don’t know what’s worse. There’s nothing scarier than struggling to breathe, and you can’t get enough air,” he said.

Respiratory therapists help determine the different levels of care patients need, and whether it’s time to move to a ventilator.

If patients have to go on ventilators, they are deeply sedated and often given medication to paralyze their muscles.

“Patients are just not getting better. Normally we would see improvement. But there’s a wave of sick people we’re seeing now and many are passing away,” Daiss said.

Inside the walls of hospitals, respiratory therapists, nurses, doctors and other medical workers will keep trying to save lives.

“Everyone’s still holding as strong as they can,” Daiss said. “Everyone’s getting tired. The staff is worn out. But we have to keep pushing forward and provide care.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.