When respiratory therapist Julie Sullivan, 46, left her home state of Texas this spring to help out embattled NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the height of New York City’s coronavirus crisis, she was told to make her N95 mask last for seven days.
“Mine broke on day three,” she told Fox News in a recent interview. “I had to staple the strap; it cut my face where the staple was used.”
She used the mask for days until she could beg for another one, as N95s are normally intended for a single use.
“I just tried not to think about it. I trusted that I was where I needed to be, and doing what I needed to do and I tried to just keep my faith that I would be protected,” Sullivan, who is also a spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, said.
“Somehow none of us got sick,” Sullivan said of the travel nurses and respiratory therapists. “I can only say by the grace of God that we were protected.”
Respiratory therapists specialize in breathing difficulties and lung issues, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These health care workers listen to patients’ lungs, suggest a course of treatment, assist with ventilating them (if needed) and monitor oxygen levels, among other duties.
On top of the shortage in personal protective equipment, or PPE, Sullivan also said the Brooklyn hospital didn’t have enough circuits for ventilators, the tubing that connects the patient to the ventilator. Sullivan said staff had to use contaminated circuits on new patients.
“They all had COVID-19 anyway. It was either that or they were going to die,” she said.
Many applauded the efforts of nurses and doctors for their hard work amid the coronavirus pandemic, but respiratory therapists shouldn’t be left out of the mix, as they, too, experienced first-hand the horrors of the COVID-19 crisis.
On Sullivan’s first shift, four patients coded within several hours, she recalled. Younger respiratory therapists with only minimal experience would often become emotional during their shifts, she said, while others coming from homecare facilities had never worked in an ICU and were unfamiliar with the ventilators.
While in the overwhelmed hospital and rushing to treat patients, Sullivan said there was rarely enough time to dig deeper into patients’ files and find names of their family members.
“The [number] of patients that were dying these horrible deaths and they were dying with strangers in the room. We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us,” she said. “We would just tell them that their family loved them and they were praying for them, and they wanted them to get better but we didn’t really know if they had family that knew about them, honestly.”
At one point while speaking with Fox News, Sullivan broke down in tears remembering how she sang “You Are My Sunshine” at patients’ bedsides. She used to sing the song to her children, two of whom she still hasn’t seen in person in months.
A highlight of her time in New York was meeting other nurses in Central Park, she said. The health care workers would swap stories, sharing their experiences about treating patients during this unprecedented time.
“We got very close, we bonded,” she said.