Life as a Respiratory Therapist on Phoenix's Frontlines

Life as a Respiratory Therapist on Phoenix's Frontlines
Elizabeth Funez
The profile photograph on Elizabeth Funez’s Facebook page is captioned. “I can’t stay home,” it reads. “I’m a respiratory therapist.”

“People don’t really know what we do,” she said of RTs. “We work right alongside doctors and nurses, but we’re mostly known for giving breathing treatments to asthmatics. We do everything from going into a delivery room to administer oxygen, to being in the trauma bay helping install an arterial bloodline or in the ER putting in a breathing tube. We’re figuring out the stress on a patient’s lungs and what to do about it. I liken what I do to sitting behind the controls of an airplane during its flight.”

Being an ICU-registered respiratory therapist during the COVID-19 pandemic means working elbow-to-elbow, Funez said, with doctors and nurses who are keeping sick people alive. As the number of infected patients grows, it also means working longer hours in more than one hospital, although she couldn’t say which ones.

She moved here in 2002 from California, where she’d attended nursing school at UCLA. “I didn’t like nursing,” she said, “so I switched to respiratory therapy. I’ve been an RT for 23 years and worked in intensive care for 16 of those years.”

In the old days before the pandemic, her job was much calmer. “We’d get calls about patients on an ICU floor who needed breathing treatments, then we might get called down to the ER for the same thing. We were seeing patients that were having trouble breathing, and we’d have to intubate or put them on a breathing machine. You’d head back to the ICU because a patient was high-pressuring on a ventilator, and you had to figure out why. It always varied; you were always switching gears. But the pace was slower, and there was less fear.”

Today, everything’s different.

“There’s a lot of talk about how comfortable we are about treating patients who haven’t been diagnosed with coronavirus, but are showing the symptoms,” Funez explained. “We’re seeing patients who haven’t been fully tested, who don’t have a diagnosis, and you would never make a guess at how to treat someone like that in a traditional setting.”

The treatments have had to be modified, too, Funez said. “A lot of the therapies for this virus are aerosolized, and it’s dangerous to aerosolize around coronavirus. We’re trying to protect other patients and ourselves.”

She thought it was difficult for people to fathom what it’s like for medical workers on the frontlines. They have had, she said, to rethink every approach to saving lives. “In a normal medical setting, you would jump right in and try to save a patient by any means necessary. But with this virus, you start by pausing. You start by gloving up, and then putting on goggles and a mask. Then a second mask. It brings on a lot of anxiety, and so we’re anxious before we’ve even started treating the patient.”

The shortage of ventilators is something RTs discuss often, Funez admitted.

“We have talked to therapists in other parts of the country about how to convert machines that can be used noninvasively. I’m hearing from other parts of the country where there’s such a shortage of ventilators, they have to think about giving them to only the sickest patients. And these are cities that are only days ahead of us in terms of running out of supplies.”

There are ways to cope, Funez insisted. “Health care workers tend to have a dark sense of humor. It’s a coping mechanism, because we see the worst of the worst. So there’s a lot of joking going on, behind the scenes.”
Whatever works. “We can’t go away for a weekend to get away from the stress of the pandemic,” she clarified. “So we’re talking amongst ourselves more about the modifications we’ve had to make in our own lives. But our morale is very fragile these days.”

Funez worries lately about the uninformed COVID-19 theories she sees on social media. “Everyone is offering some kind of cure,” she sighed. “I’ve seen people say, ‘Gargle with saltwater, because it changes your pH!’ No, it doesn’t. I’m trying to show more patience, instead of just telling people, ‘Hey, don’t be an armchair doctor!’ Even the scientists in countries that have been dealing with this longer than we have are still trying to figure out how the virus is behaving.”

People in her life have tested positive for coronavirus, Funez confided. “It’s scary, because I hear how they’re having trouble breathing, and if it were any other illness I would know how to help them.”

She paused for a moment, and took a deep breath. “Right now, all I can do is hope their immune system kicks in, and they don’t have to go to the hospital.”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela