RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When Brandii Smithson started her job as a respiratory therapist five years ago, she had no idea she would be the last person some people see before they pass away from a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people in North Carolina.
"A lot of people don't know who we are and what we do," Smithson said. She requested to not identify which major hospital she works at. "We work on the front lines. We work on the ventilators, all the oxygen equipment, all the breathing equipment. We are in high demand."
That demand is putting a strain on her patient load as her and her team members triage people at the hospital.
"We might not see every patient in the hospital. (Patients) might not all have trouble breathing," said Smithson. "But the ones who have trouble breathing, we have to see them. So that means we need more of us. Because we are stretched thin. Sometimes we have to switch our assignments to give priority to our COVID patients. So imagine what that means for the others."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will need 30% more respiratory therapists by 2029.
"We ask that people work with us to do what we need to do to keep everyone busy. It's not easy, but we are trying our hardest to take care of these patients," Smithson said.
Smithson described what she sees as "heartbreaking" as North Carolinians fight to stay alive.
"It's scary because I'm 27 and that could easily be me or some of my family members," Smithson said. "I've had patients as young as 24 or 18."
Smithson said all of this could be averted if people take COVID-19 seriously and get vaccinated.
"The ones that are unvaccinated end up on the ventilator and needing the highest forms of life support," Smithson said. "It opens your mind that this is a very real thing and some people still don't believe it's real."