MATC Healthcare Heroes: Respiratory Therapist Instructor and Alumna Answer Calls to Help in Early COVID-19 Hot Spot

Nou Thao and Mike Christman

MATC alumna Nou Thao, who contracted COVID-19 while caring for patients in Newark, New Jersey (left), alumnus and current Respiratory Therapist instructor Mike Christman who volunteered at a New York City hospital

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s televised plea in April 2020 begging medical professionals to join New York’s fight against COVID-19 haunted MATC Respiratory Therapist alumnus and instructor Mike Christman. The city and state of New York were under siege and exhausted staff could not care for the flood of patients.

“I’d never seen anything like that before,” he said. “I knew I could help.”

His wife and children urged him to follow his heart. MATC’s Healthcare Pathway Dean Kelly J. Dries, Ph.D., agreed to his request to leave the state if he would continue teaching his MATC courses, which had been moved online because of the pandemic. Christman left the comparative safety of Wisconsin in April to work full time with patients in the intensive care unit at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn.

He arrived at the height of New York’s crisis, ready to use his respiratory therapy skills to help those struggling to breathe. He intubated patients and cared for others already on ventilators or other types of breathing apparatus. Everything seemed to be an uphill battle at the underfunded facility. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce, and ventilators were old and frequently malfunctioned. English was not the first language of most of the physicians, causing communication barriers. Staff in charge of PPE distribution had to be convinced nearly every day that respiratory therapists needed their share of the precious commodity.

Overwhelming and exhausting experience

Wearing the same PPE for 12-hour shifts was a new and overwhelming experience.

“Usually, a respiratory therapist would only wear that much PPE when working with patients who had tuberculosis,” Christman explained. Medical personnel typically wear PPE for 10 to 15 minutes while working with a patient, then remove it and move on to the next patient.

“Wearing PPE all day was exhausting,” he said. “I was sweaty and drained by the end of every shift.”

Working with so many intubated patients was the worst of it, because he knew it was nearly impossible that they would survive. He assisted with countless “codes,” the all-hands-on-deck attempts to save dying patients. They rarely worked. Christman only saw a couple of patients successfully removed from ventilators in the month he worked in Brooklyn.

He was particularly stricken by the loss of young people. “Two men in their 20s came into the ICU walking, talking, alert and oriented,” he said. The virus overtook them rapidly and each died within hours.

It was wonderful to see someone you care for walk out and go home. It was very rare. It helps to know you were part of the team to help her get better.

Nou Thao respiratory therapist, MATC alumna

MATC grad says she contracted virus while working in New Jersey hospital

Nou Thao, a 2019 Respiratory Therapist graduate, traveled to Newark, New Jersey, in April. She was caring for patients at East Orange General Hospital when she contracted COVID-19. When Thao arrived at her assignment, she expected to be provided with extensive PPE. That wasn’t the case. She learned she could purchase her own respirator mask and Tyvek suit to cover her body, but had to work the first few days with only an ill-fitting mask and gloves while waiting for her specialized equipment.

Thao thinks she contracted COVID-19 due to the lack of proper PPE during those first few days. Following her fifth shift, she collapsed in the elevator of her hotel, later crawling to her room. Numb all over, Thao could not move her fingers to dial her cellphone. She eventually managed to knock the hotel phone off the hook to ask the front desk to call an ambulance.

Thao’s COVID test came back negative, but she believes that many tests were not being administered correctly, leading to false negatives. She explained that some people giving the tests were poorly trained and others didn’t push the nasal swab in far enough, fearing it would cause patients to cough on them. Doctors treated her as if she had the virus. After being released from the hospital, she struggled for three hours trying to get an Uber or cab to take her back to her hotel. Eventually, a hospital staff member gave her a ride. “They were all so afraid of the virus,” she said.

Determined to fulfill her commitment

After quarantine, she returned to her work assignment. “Everyone called me crazy, but my job was not done,” Thao said. “I decided I’d go home to my family when they didn’t need me any more at the hospital. If I left to go home after I recovered from the virus, I’d feel I hadn’t done my job.”

Despite feeling overwhelmed by seeing so much death, she persevered.

“The patients were completely alone,” she said. “Most of them were barely alive. But you can get through to some of them. There was one woman whose husband had died of COVID. I prayed for her and she survived. It was wonderful to see someone you care for walk out and go home. It was very rare. It helps to know you were part of the team to help her get better.”

Christman and Thao returned to Wisconsin safely in May and June, respectively. Christman finished teaching his online classes with a great deal of help from other instructors in the program, he said. He believes his students have already benefited by learning what it would be like to work in a pandemic and he will be able to share that with future students.

“I hope this helps them if this ever happens again, or if it continues,” he said.

Having seen the worst, both preach the importance of wearing masks, physical distancing and washing hands.

Thao, who continues to travel to multiple places across the country helping coronavirus patients, added a warning to anyone who believes they might have contracted COVID-19. “Listen to your body. If you know you aren’t feeling right, quarantine, regardless of a test result.”

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