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Kansas City’s Respiratory Workers Were Hailed As Heroes. Now Some Feel Like The Enemy

Courtesy of Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith is a respiratory therapist at St. Joseph Medical Center, where she's been caring for Kansas City's sickest COVID-19 patients for the last year and a half.

More Kansas City health care workers are feeling burnout and even quitting as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill unvaccinated patients.

Jennifer Smith is exhausted. The respiratory therapist at St. Joseph Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, has witnessed COVID-19 patients fill her hospital's intensive care unit week after week for the last 18 months.

“We lost quite a few patients last week. So taking them off the ventilator, or watching them peacefully pass, those are the challenges of the week, every week,” Smith said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, health care workers were celebrated as the frontline heroes against COVID-19. Now, many are struggling with burnout as unvaccinated patients continue to fill up local hospitals.

Out of any hospital staff, respiratory therapists work the closest with patients experiencing the worst symptoms. Smith said the days blur into one seemingly endless routine.

“Our shifts start at six and they end at six. By the time we get home, you shower, if you feel like eating something, you do that. Then you go to bed and start all over at four o'clock in the morning,” Smith said.

Frustration and exhaustion driving some to quit

For more than a year and a half, respiratory therapists have worked day in and out to provide critical care to COVID-19 patients.

But as the pandemic drags on and the delta variant drives up hospitalizations, many Kansas City area health care workers are at their breaking point.

The University of Kansas Health System reported that 15 of its RT’s have left in the last month because of exhaustion and frustration. Curtis Kidwell, president of the Kansas Respiratory Care Society, said 30 respiratory therapists quit from two of Wichita's major hospitals this year.

Smith said the wave of exits doesn't surprise her but if her small, tight-knit team experienced the same kind of exodus, it could be devastating.

“Being short staffed, continually working with three people when you need six on staff, so you're doing two people's jobs,” Smith said. “When you leave, it's really hard to come back the next day.”

Being chronically understaffed means that Smith and her colleagues have to pick up the hospital’s increasing workload. On top of that, respiratory therapists care for the sickest COVID-19 patients who are often intubated and placed on a ventilator.

Courtesy of Jennifer Smith
Smith said that her teams "lives on coffee" as they work around the clock to provide critical care to COVID patients.

Work is taking an emotional toll

Smith said watching people die takes a toll on workers who struggle to process what they’ve seen when they get home. She said she typically drives home in silence, sometimes crying, as she unpacks the events of her day.

“When you go to intubate a patient, and they've got your hand and they tell you they're scared and, 'Please don't let me die,' that's kind of hard to leave here once you caress their hair and tell them everything's gonna be okay,” Smith said.

“Then you put them into their medically induced coma, drift them off to sleep, and hope you're able to wake them back up later. Those days are the hardest.”

Smith said it’s been particularly frustrating watching the latest wave of deaths now that nearly all of the patients coming in are unvaccinated.

This time around, she said people are dying faster and younger.

“You can't treat them any differently, but you just look at them and know that they may not be in the shape that they're in now if they had just gone ahead and gotten the vaccine,” Smith said.

Taking higher paying jobs on the coast

While frustration over caring for unvaccinated patients has contributed to some health care workers quitting, Kidwell said the majority are leaving for higher-paying travel jobs across the country.

Widespread demand for health care workers to care for COVID-19 patients means nurses, respiratory therapists and other specialists are being offered massive contracts to travel to overwhelmed hospitals in other parts of the country.

“That workload has just probably been the straw that broke the camel's back and has pushed a lot of people to [think], ‘If I'm going to work this hard, I might as well go work with COVID patients in Florida, and get paid a lot more money,’” Kidwell said.

Smith said that one of her own colleagues left this month to take one of these jobs. Her hospital is doing what it can to attract and retain employees, but she said it’s difficult to compete when out of state traveling jobs can afford to pay more.

“We are one of the smaller hospitals so we don't have the big $8,000 to $10,000 week contracts. You see a lot of our respiratory therapists going coastal, because they can, right now, take advantage of those big paydays,” Smith said.

Support for frontline workers dwindles

Smith said retention bonuses might help keep workers in town, but money can only do so much. She said what frontline workers are really lacking is the appreciation they were shown earlier in the pandemic.

People used to honk in support of her and her colleagues when they would leave the hospital’s parking lot at the end of the day. But as people continue to resist getting the vaccine, Smith said she feels like the enemy.

“It was nice to feel the love and now we're still in the trenches and fighting the same fight and there's just not a ton of support for that,” Smith said.

Kidwell said he now gets dirty looks when he wears his scrubs in public, and people even approach him to tell him that they think the pandemic is a hoax.

“I think it's frustrated a lot of people who know that it's real. They're working hand in hand with the sickest patients,” Kidwell said.

Smith said like many other respiratory therapists, she’s definitely considered quitting. But the idea of leaving her small team of therapists and doctors motivates her to get up day after day and do it all over again.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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