AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)– Difficulty breathing is a major complication of COVID that often leads to death. It’s something respiratory therapists know all too well, as they see the progression of severe COVID from beginning to end.
NewsChannel 6 sat down with a respiratory therapist, Jennifer Anderson of AU Health, to walk through what a patient experiences during the stages of severe COVID, from the bedside perspective. Anderson says this strain of COVID is much more aggressive than anything she’s seen before.
Anderson says a person will experience difficulty breathing and mistake it for a cold or seasonal allergies. But several days later, with much more difficulty breathing, a patient comes to the ER. There the patient is given antivirals, steroids and supplemental oxygen.
“Sometimes these interventions will be all you need, but you will stay in the hospital awhile,” Anderson said.
If a patient is lucky, this is enough, and they’re sent home with supplemental oxygen to be weaned off of in the coming days. But this isn’t the case for every patient.
“Maybe you were out on a regular hospital unit. Now you need to go to ICU. You’re not doing well at all,” Anderson said. “We’ve tried doing interventions out on the floor, we’ve given you treatment, they tend to make you feel a little bit better, but now you need a lot more support.”
The respiratory therapist uses non-invasive ventilation through an oxygen mask to avoid intubation.
“What we try to do is prevent putting that tube down in your lungs,” Anderson said.
But the lungs become tired and fibrous, and it’s too difficult for the patient to breathe on their own.
“What we end up doing is sedating and paralyzing these people,” Anderson said.
The patient is put on an ECMO machine, which is a ventilator. Patients must be face down in a position called proning, and they are fed through a tube.
This treatment lasts many days.
“We had a 16-year-old who has come off now and he’s doing great. He’s trying to regain his strength because he was on ECMO for 13 days. I mean you look at being on ECMO for two weeks,” Anderson said.
Anderson says it’s a limited resource, and at AU, only two patients can be on an ECMO machine at a time.
For patients who do not recover, the final stages of severe COVID begin. A patient experiences multiorgan failure, and their family members make end of life decisions.
“I want folks out there to know that right now in our hospital we have forty-four COVID patients on ventilators. Forty-four. And of that forty-four, one was vaccinated. One.”
Anderson says family members of many of her patients say if only their loved one had known how serious this virus is, maybe they would have gotten the vaccine. Anderson says her and fellow respiratory therapists know all too well just how serious and aggressive the virus it, especially for those who are unvaccinated.
“It’s so very sad. It’s so very tragic. They want to live their lives and they want to get on with the things that would be normal. And then on the other hand, a lot of this gets missed, as far as how severe it is,” Anderson said.