Often the first to respond in times of respiratory distress

PBMC and WCGH: Respiratory therapists play essential role in COVID-19 response

Thu, 06/04/2020 - 10:45am

A letter from Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hosptial:
 
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we continue to hear about ventilators, the machines that deliver oxygen to the lungs of those COVID-19 patients who are unable to breathe on their own. At first, we heard about shortages. More recently, we have heard how industrial America has risen to the challenge of making more quickly.

Sometimes overlooked have been the people who operate those machines: respiratory therapists.

There are a combined 29 respiratory therapists at Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital. As the name suggests, respiratory therapists provide healthcare for the lungs, working with patients with asthma, pneumonia, emphysema and lung trauma, among other diagnoses. When it comes to working with COVID-19 patients, they operate the ventilators that supply oxygen to patients unable to breathe on their own.

“The machines are complex and require a trained operator to ensure that our patients have good outcomes,” said David Inman, MBA, RRT, director of the respiratory therapy and cardiopulmonary departments at PBMC and WCGH. “Fortunately, we have a highly skilled and experienced team.”

There are 155,000 licensed respiratory therapists in the U.S., according to the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). Typically, RTs, as respiratory therapists are known in hospital parlance, treat acute conditions. They may work with a pneumonia patient, for example, or a patient who has suffered a heart attack and needs help breathing.

“COVID-19 has shifted the focus,” said Inman.
 
The respiratory disease can lead to pneumonia and shortness of breath. In the worst cases, it can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition that prevents the oxygen in a patient’s lungs from being absorbed into the blood.

Respiratory therapists often respond first by providing supplemental oxygen thorough a nasal cannula, a light-weight tube with two short prongs that insert into a patient’s nostrils. If that does not increase the amount of oxygen in the patient’s blood, respiratory therapists have several other options, including calling in a doctor to intubate. This involves placing a tube into the patient’s airway and connecting the tube to a ventilator. The ventilator, operated by a respiratory therapist, does the breathing for the patient. In many cases, it is a deteriorating patient’s best chance of surviving.

To date, there has not been a surge of COVID-19 patients locally, and the respiratory therapists at PBMC and WCGH have focused on honing their skills during intubation drills with physicians and nurses.

“We are well prepared if a surge does arrive,” Inman said. “The team has made the best use of its time to review procedures and practice. This is an incredibly dedicated group, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

About Pen Bay Medical Center
Pen Bay Medical Center is part of MaineHealth, a not-for-profit integrated health system consisting of eight local hospital systems, a comprehensive behavioral healthcare network, diagnostic services, home health agencies, and more than 1,600 employed and independent physicians working together through an Accountable Care Organization. With more than 19,000 employees, MaineHealth is the largest health system in northern New England and provides preventive care, diagnosis and treatment to 1.1 million residents in Maine and New Hampshire. For more information, please visit pbmc.org.

Waldo County General Hospital
Waldo County General Hospital is part of MaineHealth, a not-for-profit integrated health system consisting of eight local hospital systems, a comprehensive behavioral healthcare network, diagnostic services, home health agencies, and more than 1,600 employed and independent physicians working together through an Accountable Care Organization. With more than 19,000 employees, MaineHealth is the largest health system in northern New England and provides preventive care, diagnosis and treatment to 1.1 million residents in Maine and New Hampshire. For more information, please visit wcgh.org.