Most people likely aren’t familiar with what a respiratory therapist (RT) does unless she/he has been cared for by one. But as heart and lung specialists, these professionals are on the front lines when it comes to caring for COVID-19 patients.
“Many people think we’re nurses,” said Angie Haugen, Director of Respiratory Care. “It’s such a special skill to understand mechanical ventilation. It’s unlike any other health care profession.”
Right now, RTs and pulmonologists at Monument Health are preparing for a possible surge in patients requiring their expertise. They’re training other providers and working with departments across the organization to ensure for adequate resources, supplies and staffing.
Above: Respiratory Therapist Shannon Lillevold works with a ventilator at Rapid City Hospital.
“We’re touching base with almost every department in the organization to prepare,” said Angie. “We’re fortunate to have more time to plan, as COVID-19 is hitting us later than other places. We’ve learned a lot from the other areas who have already been exposed.”
Monument Health has received a quantity of ventilators from South Dakota’s state stock pile, and RTs at Rapid City Hospital are running a skills lab to train other caregivers on using these machines and other critical equipment. RTs who don’t currently work in the inpatient setting, such as those in the Sleep Lab, at Home Medical Equipment or on the Epic team, are brushing up on their skills. Nurses and providers are also learning more about mechanical ventilation.
The department is in the process of getting temporary licenses for several students who are about to graduate from Dakota State University’s (DSU) Respiratory Care Program at Rapid City Hospital. Lacy Patnoe, director of the program, said the students have been very eager to help. “They take great pride in the importance of their roles,” Lacy said. “It has also been a humbling experience to see the struggles other Respiratory Therapists are going through in some of the high census areas like New York.”
New guidelines and information are presented almost daily regarding care for COVID-19 patients, so the RT team has become skilled in staying up-to-date with the most current information. They’ve also modified rehabilitation for pulmonary rehabilitation patients so that they can complete rehab at home, decreasing their risk of exposure. Therefore, Angie said, discharge planning is very important right now.
Angie said she’s watched her team, which includes RTs in Rapid City, Spearfish and Sturgis, as well as all caregivers come together and step up to the challenge. “Everyone is willing to learn and to take the necessary time to understand the new guidelines,” she said. “All of frontline caregivers have been amazing.”