'We have to...just be brave:' What it's like to be a respiratory therapist, one of the most dangerous jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Unlike those who can work from home, healthcare workers must report in person for duty. And while all of them have dangerous jobs right now, some are more dangerous than others.

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"It never crossed our mind that we would have to go through a pandemic like this," said Deepika Malhotra, a respiratory therapist at UNC REX Hospital.

She said when she became a respiratory therapist (RT) she wanted to help people. But 16 years ago when she began her career she never considered that hooking up patients to a ventilator could be as hazardous as it is today.

A doctor and respiratory therapist often have to insert breathing tubes into the windpipes of sedated COVID-19 patients.

"We're right there. We're so close," Malhotra said, "So it does make it much more challenging and scary because it's so much uncertainty with this disease."

So just how risky is that job? Visual Capitalist, a company that analyzed data from the O*Net Resource Center, calculated the risk.
The results show a respiratory therapist's job has a danger level of 95 out of possible 100.

That's no surprise to Malhotra, she says she just has to internalize that risk and continue to show up at Raleigh's UNC REX Hospital for every shift.

"If we got scared and said we don't want to do this, this is too dangerous, who will take care of the patients and their families? We have to step up and put our fears aside and just be brave and do the best we can every single day."

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Malhotra says she is fortunate that REX Hospital has plenty of protective gear and allows workers to change at the hospital.

But she still worries about going home after every shift saying, "My biggest fear is bringing it home."

She's so fearful she and her husband practice social distancing at home.
They have even been sleeping in separate bedrooms and using separate bathrooms.

"My husband and I, have been separated almost for about the last three weeks. It's just a lot of added stress and it's a very challenging time," Malhotra said.

But she also knows it could be worse because she's heard from people who are RT's in hotspots in the northeast.

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"Thankfully we've been blessed that we haven't seen that much volume here in the Triangle area and in North Carolina. But I just cannot imagine how they are dealing with it in New York City, New Jersey and some of those parts of the country."

She says she's thankful for the support of her husband, her co-workers, and her supervisor for helping her continue to be brave in the face of so much risk.

"There's so much uncertainty with this disease. It affects everybody so differently. It's so hard to say what the outcomes are going to be."
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