December 6, 2023
Full-Time Student Works Weekend Shifts as Respiratory Therapist
By Dustin Norman, PA-S
I am a first-year PA student and a registered respiratory therapist. When COVID-19 arrived in Seattle and began spreading across the city, my didactic training went entirely online. We witnessed the virus tear through China and bombard Italy. Fears mounted as some regions saw a 5to 10% fatality rate from COVID-19. American healthcare workers anticipated a ventilator shortage and concerns grew over the uncertainty of PPE supplies. As I prepared for my final winter exams, I received three or four calls a day regarding the urgent need for respiratory therapists, and I wanted to help. I connected with a hospital in central Oregon and joined the fight. For eight weeks, I studied full time and worked 12-hour shifts on weekends at the hospital.
I extubated recovering COVID-19 patients and I helped resuscitate neonates during these strange times. As I walked through the hospital it was clear to me that this unprecedented situation has brought a renewed appreciation for healthcare workers. Local companies donated coffee, masks, gift cards, snacks, practically anything they could muster to support their local facility. In fact, one of the local breweries converted their operation to produce hand sanitizer. The tangy aroma of sanitizer mixed with craft beer residue is a smell I will not soon forget.
“Thank you for saving my life”
During my third shift in Oregon I liberated my first COVID-19 patient from the ventilator. This gentleman endured a long and arduous bout with the virus, but he survived its wicked course and now it was time for him to breath without the help of a machine. I have extubated hundreds of patients during my time as a respiratory therapist. I’ve had patients cuss at me, spit on me, I’ve even dodged a right hook or two. While memorable, none of those patients impacted me like this one. Shortly after extubating this man he spoke at me with a raspy and hoarse voice. His words were difficult to hear through my bulky respirator, face shield, and the continuous humming of ICU equipment. But as I leaned in towards him, I made out his message: “Thank you, thank you for saving my life.”
There are so many unknowns regarding COVID-19 treatment right now, but on that day we knew enough to save this man’s life, and I was proud to be a part of that.
Advice for PA students
We have to figure out a way to stay motivated during this pandemic. I miss my classmates and I miss the camaraderie we shared on campus. I never thought I’d say it, but I even miss the three-hour classroom lectures. Video conference fatigue is the new norm and I described it to my advisor as “re-learning how to go to PA school. It’s like orientation day all over again.”
Our class will be the first to receive their PA education online, we are pioneers of this crisis learning format and I find that motivational. This is a time to get gritty and define ourselves as an adaptive generation of providers. Don’t forget to acknowledge the staff who are fighting this pandemic while we study. The nurses, respiratory therapists, MAs, scribes, CNAs, x-ray techs, phlebotomists, those in food service andenvironmental services, volunteers, ER techs, and therapists are vital front-line workers in healthcare. Ask for their opinion and respect their requests because they are our comrades, and each one of them knows something about medicine that you do not. We are all in this together and I look forward to graduating with my class.
Dustin Norman is a PA student at The University of Washington in Tacoma, Washington. He previously worked as a respiratory therapist.
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