LEXINGTON, Kentucky (October 29, 2021) — When Morgan Mellott shows up to work on the adult COVID-19 floor of Albert B. Chandler Hospital at the University of Kentucky, everyone guesses what the day will bring.
Which COVID-19 patients are they still clinging to? Which COVID-19 patients declined? Which COVID-19 patients who were here the day before have left and what is the extent of illness in the new COVID-19 patient in their place?
The past year and a half has been the most stressful time in Mellott’s nearly decade-long career as a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). The novel coronavirus has largely dominated the hospital’s patient population – and the latest surge of the highly contagious delta variant has challenged UK HealthCare staff and pushed nearly everyone to breaking point.
“This round the patients are younger and sicker,” Mellott said. “The work is hard day after day. The staff are exhausted and exhausted, but we are doing everything we can to try to help our patients because we are invested in them and their families.
UK HealthCare’s large team of respiratory therapists are helping to treat some of the sickest patients, particularly those with difficulty breathing, a common symptom of COVID-19. Therapists administer oxygen therapy, treat patients with nebulizer medication, help intubate patients who are then placed on a ventilator – which respiratory therapists also set up and maintain.
Sometimes the weight of the pandemic is difficult to handle, Mellott said. But they have learned to assert themselves and take every opportunity to celebrate success.
“My colleagues have become family and I’m incredibly grateful to work among the best,” Mellott said. She is especially grateful for the support of her biggest cheerleader – her mother and co-worker, Sandy Carver.
“Having a front row seat to watch Morgan’s growth as a respiratory therapist is wonderful,” Carver said.
Carver works as a Registered Respiratory Therapist at UK HealthCare’s Good Samaritan Hospital.
“At Good Sam, we mainly see post-COVID patients in our unit, and many of them are from the UK,” Carver said. “It’s amazing how far they’ve come to be able to get to this point. Much of this success is attributed to the care they receive from UK HealthCare staff, including respiratory therapists like my daughter.
A career in respiratory therapy has been on Mellott’s mind since she was a teenager. She remembers watching her mother study for her breathing classes, thinking she would also like to pursue a job that would allow her to help others.
Although they now work in separate facilities, the mother-daughter duo agree that helping each other navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is invaluable.
“It’s nice to have someone you can relate to, someone you can talk to about your day, and they understand,” Carver said. “Regardless of the pandemic, respiratory is a rewarding career. You work side by side with some of the greatest people you will ever meet. And it’s especially gratifying to be able to care for a patient and know that you’re helping them recover.
February 2022 will mark an important and impressive milestone for Greg Allen. It will be 30 years since he walked through the doors of Britain’s Chandler Hospital to care for patients when they needed it most.
He began his career in respiratory therapy treating adults at UK’s Chandler Hospital and has never looked back. It now covers care at UK HealthCare Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
“Our RT team at UK HealthCare is second to none,” said Greg. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”
Besides his colleagues, there is another important factor that motivates Greg day in and day out: his wife, Sharon.
Sharon Allen is a respiratory therapist currently working as a Pulmonary Function Technologist. She started at UK HealthCare 22 years ago.
Greg and Sharon met as colleagues in adult acute care in the UK. They initially agreed to keep their relationship a secret.
“I was very hesitant to even go on a date because I wasn’t too keen on starting a relationship in the workplace,” Sharon said. “But before we knew it, we were in love.”
Because they work in separate areas of the hospital and on different schedules, the Allens find it easier to maintain a good work-life balance.
“The nice thing is that we understand each other’s workflow,” Sharon said. “When one of us has a tough day or we’re exhausted, we 100% understand what it means.”
Sharon and Greg are not alone – there are several other respiratory therapist spouses who work together at UK HealthCare. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies – working in the same field as your spouse certainly has its challenges, especially when it comes to juggling work and kids. The Allens haven’t always been able to enjoy a vacation together as a full family, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on their schedule.
“I work five days a week and Greg works 12-hour shifts, which created significant challenges, especially at the start of the pandemic,” Sharon said. “We had to get creative with dealing with having the kids at home for virtual school and dealing with our work responsibilities.”
Sharon said the workload has increased dramatically for herself and for Greg – the UK Pulmonary Lab has grown exponentially with post-COVID patients.
“We are very grateful for the support of our work family,” said Sharon. “And having a spouse who really understands stress has been helpful.”
Despite the challenges, Greg is grateful to work alongside Sharon.
“I think working with your spouse is going pretty well, really,” Greg said. “Other colleagues like to see couples and different family groups together. We’ve been in the UK for so long that there are still people around us who knew us before we got married, saw us become a family, have children, so that’s good.
Gretchen McDowell will never forget the phone call she received from her son, JD, during his senior year of college.
JD was on the dean’s list, working on a degree in criminal justice, and was less than a year away from graduating when he changed his mind. He decided to abandon his criminal justice plans and pursue a career in respiratory therapy instead. “I was floored, absolutely floored… And he was almost done!” Gretchen quips.
Gretchen knew the path to respiratory care would not be easy—she spoke from experience. Gretchen works as a Registered Respiratory Therapist at UK Chandler Hospital.
But JD was determined, and nothing would stop him from pursuing a career he started envisioning in high school. “I used to go with my mom to her respiratory therapy class because I didn’t have my license yet,” he said. “Sometimes I would walk into the classroom and sit in a corner. What they were talking about sounded like a fun experiment, something I might want to consider.
Gretchen has worked for 12 years as an RRT for UK HealthCare – this will be her fourth year working alongside JD. Currently, they are assigned to Kentucky Children’s Hospital and often find themselves working the same cases, in the same room. Gretchen said it can be hard to stay out of “mom mode” at work. She sometimes double-checks J.D. to make sure he’s wearing his personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly and to make sure he’s okay.
“Sometimes I call him ‘Bub’ by mistake,” she laughs. “He’ll look at me and say, ‘Okay, Gretchen.
“I’m so proud of him,” Gretchen said with tears in her eyes.
Gretchen said she was worried about JD catching COVID-19. He helps with many COVID-19 baby deliveries.
“His nickname at work is ‘midwife,’” Gretchen said. “But he knows what he’s doing. More often than not, he knows what to do better than me.
Four years into his career in respiratory therapy, JD does not regret his decision to change careers. If he hadn’t, he probably never would have met his wife, Hannah. The couple met at work at UK HealthCare. Hannah is currently responsible for working with adult patients with COVID-19 at Chandler Hospital.
“Especially on tough days, it’s really helpful to have both my mum and my wife with me to and from work,” JD said. “It’s a source of comfort for me.”
As JD and Hannah lean on each other at work and at home, Hannah notes that it’s especially important to do your best to get away from work at work, so they can focus on raising their young son together at home.
“I think working together actually helps our relationship because you’re both going through the same things together and you know where each other is coming from,” Hannah said. “But we make sure that when we’re home with our little boy, the focus is on him.”
Caring for patients is a team sport, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some of the most valuable players are respiratory therapists.
The job of a respiratory therapist is wide ranging, from performing diagnostic tests and analyzing oxygen levels, to managing ventilators and responding to emergency situations requiring urgent care. Now, more than ever, respiratory therapists are in high demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact communities.
While there are many adjectives you might use to describe those who work in health care, the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) chooses “Resilience, Strength, and Hope” to honor respiratory therapists and the work they do every day to help patients. .
For those interested in pursuing a career in respiratory therapy, contact Bluegrass Community and Technical College to learn more about their respiratory care program.