Respiratory therapists 'at the head of the bed' in virus fight

Respiratory therapists have a vital role to play in the fight against COVID-19. The Ottawa Hospital has bolstered their numbers, but will it be enough to withstand the coming wave of patients?

Ottawa Hospital bolsters numbers in preparation for coming wave of COVID-19 patients

Respiratory therapist Dave Swift was due to retire last week, but has returned to work. 'This is one reason I have chosen to go back ... for other families who are loved as much as I love mine.' (Submitted by Dave Swift)

Dave Swift calls himself The Ottawa Hospital's "oldest new hire."

The 60-year-old respiratory therapist, or RT, was set to retire March 31, but one day later he was back on the job.

"I thought I had paid my dues for 37 years, but I have extensive experience in emergency preparedness. I know the place like the back of my hand," he said. "And we can't really afford to have a lag in what we're doing."

What RTs, are doing, and will increasingly be doing, is caring for the sickest of COVID-19's victims, and that's putting them at a greater risk of infection.

"As a respiratory therapist, we're always at the head of the bed. We're at the trauma codes, the cardiac arrest, everything else. All our training has been dealing with all the nasty stuff that comes out of people's lungs," Swift said.

RT among confirmed cases

On March 22, the Eastern Ontario Health Unit announced a man in his 30s who works at The Ottawa Hospital had tested positive for the virus. CBC has learned he's a respiratory therapist who was working in the emergency room at the General campus when he began to feel ill.

Swift said since then, at least two other RTs have become sick with the respiratory illness, but it's not clear whether they picked it up on the job or in the community. The Ottawa Hospital has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19 among its employees. 

While the hospital's RTs have experience dealing with SARS, H1N1 and even ebola, there are concerns about their ability to withstand the COVID-19 wave that's about to come crashing down.

New hires bolster numbers

The Ottawa Hospital hired 20 more RTs last week to bolster its numbers at the Civic and General campuses, bringing the total on staff to 170. At the same time, the colleges and regulators that train and certify RTs are rushing in a new crop of graduates.

CBC News spoke with two colleagues who worked with the RT at the General campus the night he fell ill. They said he started feeling sick halfway through his overnight shift on March 14 and went home. The nurses, doctors and residents who were on the same shift in the ER were informed of the RT's positive test for COVID-19 about a week later. 

So far, the two health-care workers told CBC, no one else on shift that night has shown any symptoms.

Since then, Swift, who works at the Civic campus, says two other RTs have tested positive, but likely got infected through community exposure.

On Saturday, Ottawa Public Health disclosed that a patient on the fifth floor of the Civic campus had also tested positive and was being isolated.

Risk of exposure

Swift said these cases drive home the need for absolute diligence when it comes to donning personal protective equipment (PPE).

"You never know when seeing patients — one gap in your procedure and you can be exposed," Swift said

The Ottawa Hospital does have stringent protocols in place. "Spotters" are now on hand to make sure PPE is donned and doffed properly, and any staff member who comes into close unprotected contact with someone who's tested positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for 14 days.

Swift said staff have been told as many as one in three could be off sick at the height of the crisis, and the Ontario government has said the pandemic could last up to two years.

Personal toll

For Swift, as with all health-care workers, there is a personal toll, too.

He and his wife live with their two adult children on an acreage outside the city, so physical distancing from strangers isn't too difficult — it's the separation from the rest of his family, especially his parents, that's tough.

Swift's parents, who are in their 80s, have not left their apartment on Craig Henry Drive for several weeks. Swift and his two brothers take turns delivering them groceries, which they place in a basket so their parents can hoist the supplies up to their second-floor balcony without physical contact.

"Everybody is afraid for their families ... but as far as the RTs at the bedside, we are prepared," Swift said.

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