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Respiratory therapists play a critical role in helping coronavirus patients

Updated: Apr. 7, 2020 at 7:25 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, those fighting to save lives locally and around the country are not just doctors and nurses, but also respiratory therapists.

The Centers for Disease Control says the virus can lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease. Those conditions can wreak havoc on a person’s breathing.

John Zamjahn, PHD, RRT, is a Professor of Clinical Cardiopulmonary Science and Program Director of Advanced Respiratory Therapy at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

"They're putting their lives on the line as well as the other healthcare professionals. They're doing everything they can to support the patient's breathing,” Zamjahn said of respiratory therapists.

He said the work they are doing is absolutely vital.

"In severe cases, they're placing them on those breathing machines or the ventilators,” said Zamjahn. "The number of patients that are being placed on ventilators the healthcare team is going to rely heavily upon the respiratory therapists' expertise, they have a thorough knowledge of ventilator technology, they're very well experienced in ventilator management of patients with lung disease, particularly those who have severe lung injury."

Tom Kallstrom, MBA, RRT, is CEO and Executive Director of the American Association for Respiratory Care. He further discussed the role RTs are playing in medical facilities.

"So, the respiratory therapists primarily at this point are in the ICUs managing patients on ventilators, that's key to this whole thing right now,” said Kallstrom.

It is lifesaving and risky work.

Kallstrom says by nature of what they do, RTs are positioned very close to patients.

"When you stick a tube into the airway it's called intubating the patient, you're very close to possible airway secretions that could be coughed on to you, so it's important that we have the right protective equipment on, the mask and shield,” he said.

And some are contracting the virus. A respiratory therapist contacted FOX 8 News to say she got the virus while taking care of emergency patients. She also stressed that the work they do is very important.

Kallstrom said AARC is hearing from respiratory therapists who have caught the virus.

"We are concerned about that, of course, we're not too surprised,” he said.

Zamjahn said being short of breath can be distressing for patients.

"Patients who are experiencing shortness of breath, they're fighting for air and with that comes a fear that they're not going to be able to breathe and anxiety and restlessness,” he said.

Still some patients do not require ventilation when battling COVID-19 or other conditions. But RTs still have a role in helping them.

"They're giving them oxygen, they're giving them breathing treatments to help open up their airways,” said Zamjahn.

Nationwide, there are 150,000 respiratory therapists and in Louisiana a little over 3,000 according to AARC.

"Well, they are going to be stretched thin, there is a shortage of respiratory therapists across the nation and here in the state,” said Zamjahn.

And he is sharing that message with his students at LSU.

"They definitely see the need for respiratory therapists and the role that they're going to play, the important role that they have and they're anxious to get out there and help,” said Zamjahn.

He and Kallstrom said RTs also help patients in out-patient settings.

“Respiratory therapists, once a patient is discharged, are there to serve as a disease manager of sorts, where they can be called upon to interact with patients who have questions or problems,” said Kallstrom. “Also, there are companies that will still have a respiratory therapist come into the home.”

"The amount of lung damage that's due after recovering from this coronavirus is still left to be determined but just as with any other patient who has a chronic lung condition or experience acute lung injury, respiratory therapists are involved in the pulmonary rehab component of their care,” said Zamjahn.

The state said on Tuesday (April 7) 519 hospitalized COVID-19 patients were on ventilators.

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