My wife, two daughters and I have a ritual we do every night when we sit down to dinner. We call it the “highs and lows,” where we take turns sharing a high point and a low point from our day.
I am a respiratory therapist at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. And many times during the past two years, the low that I shared with my family was that a patient of mine had died — a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator that I had helped to monitor, a patient whom my team members wrapped in our arms as we rotated the patient from belly to back to improve his or her lung function, a patient we all rooted for every day in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
These were hard days.
My family would say, “You had a high yesterday.” Or “You had a high last week.” They would say that things are going to get better. They always do.
And now it looks like things are getting better. At one point, WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital’s ICU had as many as 10 patients on ventilators at one time. Last week, there were none. COVID-19 case counts are dropping in our hospital, across the county, and across the country. With the help of vaccines and mask-wearing and other precautions, we are tentatively moving toward a return to our life before the pandemic.
It feels so good!
Like other people, I am emerging from the pandemic a different person than I was just two years ago. Before COVID-19, I am not sure many people knew what a respiratory therapist does. Put simply, we treat people who have problems with their lungs and breathing, using therapies or devices to do so. Because COVID-19 is a virus that causes severe inflammation of the lungs, respiratory therapists were on the front lines during the pandemic — there when a patient was put on a ventilator, there to encourage a patient during sometimes uncomfortable therapy that vibrates the patient’s lungs to loosen secretions, there to monitor and adjust treatments.
The hard part for us respiratory therapists and everyone who cares for COVID-19 patients is that, though we do everything we can to save our patients, sometimes everything is not enough.
I am not an overly religious man, but I have told my team members that we do the work of the Lord. This is what the good Lord would want us to do, to care for these patients and to do our best. And so that is what we did, and it helped us get through those dark days.
Earlier this month, I had the honor of being in the ICU when the team got a visit from Nick, our patient who had been on a ventilator for the longest duration at Ephrata — five weeks, or 36 days in all. The respiratory therapists all spent a lot of time in Nick’s room. We checked his ventilator at least every four hours, or more often if its alarm was going off. We helped turn him every 24 hours. We also turned his head every two hours.
At one point, I said to myself, “I am not sure if we have any chance of Nick surviving, but we might.” It’s almost like watching a movie over and over, but the ending is not always the same. Still, you hope.
And then Nick started making progress and he started getting better. That was the greatest feeling, to see someone come into the hospital in bad shape and then go home.
When Nick visited with us, he shared that he now cherishes the smallest things. He moved his foot forward a few inches and said, “Even this, just being able to take a step.”
That is how the pandemic has changed me, too.
I value life more. It made me appreciate everything I have: the love of my family, the love of what I’m doing, and the fact that I can make a difference in someone’s life.
There are hidden gifts in the pandemic that we are now just discovering: every breath we can take, every step we can take, every moment we can share with our families.
I feel blessed.
Alionso Avril is a respiratory therapist and Pulmonary Services team leader at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital.