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Meet one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic: respiratory therapists in Northeast Ohio

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Posted at 9:41 AM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 10:26:47-05

CLEVELAND — As we mark one year of living with the coronavirus pandemic, we're highlighting the unsung heroes on the frontlines; the jobs not talked about as much, but no less important.

That includes respiratory therapists, like Nicole Wilbert-Stetak from Elyria who's helping save lives in her hometown. She is a respiratory supervisor at University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center.

"I don't know that anyone really sees themselves as a hero in this because it takes everybody to help," said Nicole. "It’s a huge team role.”

A respiratory therapist monitors oxygen levels, blood gases and machine settings. They are the last person a COVID-19 patient sees before going on a ventilator and the first person they see when they wake up.

"With this we were seeing patients on ventilators 30 to 45 days,” she recalled.

That has improved greatly, she says, since the start of the pandemic. They have learned how best to care for coronavirus patients, but Nicole says she’s still learning how best to heal herself.

"There are some things that you can never un-see," she said. The human toll weighs on her heart.

"You don't know if your patients are going to make it through the night, and that's something that weighs on you heavily.”

Respiratory therapists have also served as bedside therapists for patients alone due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"You talk to them like it was your loved one," said Nicole. "If that was your family you would want them to be taken care of in the same way."

It is emotional hearing how powerful that connection is for both patient and provider. Its scale and scope this past year are humbling, and it’s clear that one year later doesn’t mean all better for our health care workers.

"I feel like we're still in survival mode," said Nicole.

They need time to come down. She says talking with her peers helps heal.

"To have someone who understands how you're feeling and the things you've seen, adds a lot of support to your system," she said.

As for what makes her hopeful, Nicole says it's the tremendous knowledge they've gained in how to care for coronavirus patients.

"I'm hopeful that in the future we will have the tools we need to help patients recover from this quicker, and that'll be a huge light at the end of the tunnel!"

UH has a support program for staff and resources to help them cope with the stress of serving on the frontlines of the pandemic.

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