‘We want to make a difference’: Respiratory therapists among COVID-19 heroes


GREENVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Outside Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville, the now-familiar site of large white triage tents await the next COVID-19 case. Also waiting for that next patient is respiratory therapist Wendy Leatherman.

“Our role in this consists of from the beginning when they walk in the door,” Leatherman said Wednesday.

Therapists like her check oxygen levels and prescribe therapies or in some cases medications. In the most serious cases, they have to intubate a patient.

“Which is putting the breathing tube in, putting them on the ventilator. From that point on, we’re pretty much there the entire time,” Leatherman said.

Leatherman and her fellow respiratory therapists are the human touch behind ventilators and other efforts to keep COVID-19 patients breathing.

“It’s a learning curve for all of us, because it’s all new,” Leatherman, who became a respiratory therapist more than a decade ago, said.

Respiratory therapists have a unique job. They help every kind of patient, from a 28-week premature newborn whose lungs are still developing to an 80-year-old COPD patient.

Triage tents outside Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville. (April 1, 2020)

The coronavirus pandemic has not only robbed many patients of their breath, but also of their ability to be comforted by loved ones since family and friends are not allowed by a patient’s bedside. It’s especially stressful to those patients on ventilators.

“They’re chemically paralyzed. They can’t move and it’s got to be scary,” Leatherman said.

That means the respiratory therapists fill both physical and emotional needs.

“Talking to them about their disease or going off and talking about their grandchildren, because they don’t have the opportunity to do that with anybody,” Leatherman said. “That’s why we do what we do, because we want to make a difference.”


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