#ShoreHealthcareHeroes: Respiratory Therapists

RTs Paul Patel, Maria Caltabiano-Gonzalez, Mike Chern and Fran McCord

April 24, 2020

When someone needs lifesaving care in a hospital, you’ll almost always find a respiratory therapist right by their side. They’ve long been the unsung heroes in hospitals, but they couldn’t be more important to patient care, especially now. They’re the experts behind the ventilator machines that many COVID-19 patients need, but their role goes far beyond that. 

Karen McKinley is the interim manager of the Respiratory Therapy department. She says RTs are truly front line in all emergency procedures. 

“We have a presence in every area of the hospital, from neonates to geriatrics, routine procedures to critical care, the emergency department and more. We care for patients in acute situations like heart attacks and accident victims, or babies born with breathing problems. But we also care for people with chronic lung conditions like COPD or asthma. If they need oxygen or there is a chance they might need it, an RT is right there,” McKinley says. 

Shore Medical Center’s respiratory team includes 23 RTs, who work closely with many other units and physicians, especially the intensivists like Dr. Depetrillo, Dr. Christiano, Dr. Pandian and Dr. Evans. At any given time, there could be three to four respiratory therapists in the hospital, including overnight. 

McKinley says that in the face of COVID-19, the team had to come up with new and innovative ways of caring for patients.

“To prepare, our team did a great deal of reading and collaborating to come up with best practices for COVID-19 patients. For example, we had to modify our ventilators to include an extra filter to prevent the virus from being expelled into the room. We’ve switched many of our procedures from aerosol treatments, like nebulizers, to inhalers. We’ve also modified the process of intubation or extubation to prevent the spread of the virus,” McKinley says. 

Maria Caltabiano-Gonzalez is an RT at Shore who says although this pandemic has presented many challenges, this is their profession’s time to shine. 

“It is scary, but at the same time it makes you feel proud. Respiratory therapists have a very important role and we really help people,” she says. “When it seems as though a patient is declining, we problem solve in order to maintain their airway and try our hardest to do what’s best for the patient. As a respiratory therapist, our role is to suggest and trial different equipment in order to prevent mechanical ventilation,” she says. 

McKinley stressed that nurses and aides have also stepped up to the plate to help RTs care for patients collectively.

“There is a lot more collaboration and sharing of responsibilities with our nursing team. If one of us is going into the room, we can take care of another task that needs to be done, and vice versa.” 

Leigh Batastini is a respiratory therapist who explained more about the intricacies of an RTs role. 

“Most of the equipment we use on patients with COVID-19 is complex, especially the ventilator. Operating it requires the knowledge and experience of an RT. We dial in a patient’s respiratory rate, tidal volume, percent oxygen and positive end-expiratory pressure. There are many alarms we need to monitor, graphs we need to watch to make sure they’re getting enough oxygen into their lungs,” Batastini said. “Then we have to do routine checks on the machines. There’s a lot to it.”
Batastini also commented on the emotional aspect of the job. 

“These patients are very scared, they’re alone, and it’s very frightening for them. It is also difficult for us, but we can’t show it. I often go up into the chapel after my shift and pray.”

McKinley is so proud of the team for stepping up to the plate. They’re caring not only for COVID patients but patients all over the hospital. 

“This pandemic has presented us all with overwhelming challenges, but I’m inspired by how well our team is collaborating to overcome them.”