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MANSFIELD — Medical professionals are truly the first line of defense in the COVID-19 global pandemic. Leading the charge among them are respiratory therapists.
Patients with COVID-19 experience mild to severe respiratory illness, with symptoms including a cough and shortness of breath of difficulty breathing. A respiratory therapist helps patients who are having trouble breathing.
As a result, respiratory therapists around the country have never been busier.
"We really are on the front lines," said Lisa Awad, site manager of pulmonary services for OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby Hospitals. "With COVID-19 being a mostly respiratory-related disease, they're one of the first people that see a COVID patient."
According to the Ohio Department of Health, there have been 19,094 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,769 hospitalizations in the state of Ohio. In Richland County, there have been 90 total cases and 22 hospitalizations.
Pulmonary services at OhioHealth help patients experiencing breathing or lung problems that affect their daily life, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung diseases and a wide range of respiratory conditions. Treatments and procedures are related to conditions in the airway, lungs or respiratory muscles.
According to Awad, the respiratory therapists at OhioHealth are still seeing their typical patients all over the hospital in addition to COVID-19 patients. The main difference is how the department manages their daily activities.
"With having COVID patients, we have to wear a lot of protective equipment - gowns, gloves, masks, face shields - so it takes longer to see each patient because you have to garb up before you see them," Awad said. "Treatment is similar, but how we're doing the work is different."
Meanwhile, Awad's daily duties have changed dramatically, with the majority of her time spent assuring the hospital has enough ventilators to take care of a very large surge of patients and working with supply chains to make sure the hospital has everything to meet the needs of the community.
On March 31, Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton issued an order requiring weekly reporting to gather a statewide inventory of ventilators and other machines and devices that provide breathing assistance. A ventilator is a machine, equipment or device designed to move breathable air into and out of the lungs, to deliver breathing assistance to a patient who is physically unable to breathe, or has difficulty breathing.
"OhioHealth has absolutely given us every resource we could possibly need to make sure we have a good plan together," Awad said. "We've planned from an ICU perspective to accommodate a large influx of patients, with plenty of ventilators and supplies for our community."
In general, Awad said respiratory patients have a lot of fear and anxiety due to COVID-19, especially patients with underlying health problems. As a result, the focus of respiratory therapists has been to treat their patients emotionally as well as physically.
"Right now during COVID-19 the patients aren't having the support of visitors because we're limiting visitors, so this can be especially difficult for patients and families," Awad said. "Now more than ever we're assuring patients we're there for them, from holding their hand to comfort them to spending extra time with them.
"Our respiratory supervisor from night shift was talking to a patient, she said she loved to draw and color so they brought in colored pencils and set them up for her to pass time," she continued. "They're going above and beyond."
Awad's team has been supporting each other as well, taking time to laugh and check in on their own emotional health. She praised her team for rapidly adapting to changes as more information about COVID-19 becomes available every day, and sometimes every hour.
"We all have a very important role and that's taking really good care of our whole community," Awad said. "We're all in this together and we're going to get through this together."