Respiratory therapist recounts battling COVID-19 in New York

By Richard Rosenthal

Special to Kitsap Daily News

“Beginning of the night a patient was intubated and put on life support (ventilator). They wanted to Facetime their spouse beforehand but never got the chance. The person coded an hour or so later. During CPR their spouse was calling their cell over and over. The patient died, never being able to talk with them. The shift was tough. I’m too exhausted to explain the whole time tonight so I will leave it there. I’m mentally and physically drained. Trying to hold back the tears tonight.”

— An excerpt from John Bright’s blog “Covid19 Fight from an RT Perspective.”

John Bright is an Army veteran and a respiratory therapist from Poulsbo who recently traveled to New York and spent 25 gut-wrenching days working with COVID-19 patients in a Brooklyn hospital. COVID-19 is arguably the most controversial and hotly debated topic of discussion today, as news media remains dominated by articles on the virus and social media has exploded with bitter arguments. Reading articles and social media posts is one thing; sitting six feet from someone who fought on the front lines of the battle and hearing the stories firsthand is an entirely different experience. Some of Bright’s tales are horrifying, while others are inspirational. Bright says his background in the military helped him prepare mentally and physically for what he would experience in New York.

“I spent 13 years in the Army, mostly in the reserves, but I was deployed three times,” Bright said. “Did three tours in Iraq, the first time in transportation, then I switched over to [Military Police]. Combat MP, kicking in doors and all that. I was thinking about doing the full 20 years, but I got burned out, especially with doing the interrogations. I was dealing with really horrible people, not Iraqis, but people from other countries. The Iraqis actually have a very strong family structure, and it made me hope that one day I can go back as a tourist.”

Upon his departure from the Army, Bright says he was looking to pursue something more rewarding.

“I still wanted to help people, I didn’t want to hurt people anymore, I didn’t want to carry a weapon anymore, I was just done,” Bright said. “I started thinking of what to do in civilian life, and one possible career path was as a respiratory therapist. I did a tour of a school for respiratory therapist training and I really liked it. Being an RT, I would be able to help people and use my critical thinking skills. After graduating, I worked in Montana to get experience and eventually moved to Washington. For the past four years, I’ve been working at Home Helpers, which is a company that provides in-home care for seniors and others who need additional care. I’m also working full-time as a respiratory therapist.”

As the year 2020 began, there were a few media reports from China about a mysterious new virus that was making people ill. At that time, there was little concern in the United States. China was halfway across the globe, and government and health authorities gave assurances that the risk to the general population in this country was minimal. However, as winter faded into spring, each day brought progressively bleaker and more frightening news.

“My wife and I had our baby in December and I went on paternity leave,” Bright said. “The whole COVID thing had started and the staff at Home Helpers were naturally concerned, as most of our clientele were seniors. As the situation continued to get worse, I decided to go to Brooklyn, New York, as sort of a second call to serve. I decided to go to Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn to work in the Respiratory Care Department. It took about five days of background checks and interviews, and away I went. It almost felt like when I was deployed in the Army … I got there on April 14, signed in, and it was super chaotic.”

Upon his arrival, Bright says he found many of the staff had fallen ill.

“The entire payroll department was sick except for one person,” Bright said. “All the admin staff above them — all sick. Everybody’s sick. It was complete chaos. Everyone was running out of PPE, running out of N-95’s, but they were still trying to help. There were codes every few minutes. It was just nuts.”

“A patient I tried hard to stabilize coded at the beginning of the shift. This is the second night in a row there was a code right in the beginning. Hours and hours to correct their pulmonary status. Many years they will never see. Patient less than 45 years old. Just gone…gone…someone’s parent, sibling, child…just gone,” Bright wrote in his blog documenting his time in New York.

Bright worked every day for a month, save for three days off. He says that a respiratory therapist will normally manage a maximum of 10 ventilator patients, which is considered a very heavy load. The first night he had 26 patients on ventilators. The hospital was so overwhelmed because the ICU was full and COVID patients were placed in rooms behind closed doors to keep the virus from spreading. While that tactic may have been effective, the downside was that patients couldn’t be monitored properly when they fell into respiratory distress.

The patient the other night who believed that the virus was ‘fake news’ and that we were killing them ended up passing after he ripped off their equipment that was keeping him alive.”

Bright said he has some strong feelings about the subject and he doesn’t mince words. “I would get upset about it, but some of the staff were just raging mad, throwing things against the wall because they were so frustrated that nobody seemed to be listening at all. A lot of them didn’t watch the news because they wanted to focus on patient care, but I did. People were saying the virus was a hoax, and I caught myself getting into arguments online with people saying I was just an actor. It was so absurd that I began wondering if I was talking to a bot or a real person, but sure enough, it was a person.”

With everything Bright experienced in New York, would he ever do it again if he got the call? Could he ever do it again? He didn’t hesitate when the question was put to him. “Yes, I’m going back. I’m probably going to wait until the beginning of the year. And if it’s still raging, which I think it will be, I’m going to continue to do this. I just want to help people as much as I can.”

“One shining light … a patient of mine who everyone thought would code has maintained their respiratory rate and O2 level. They seem to be doing OK. Feel a little less defeated tonight. Going to listen to music and watch a little “Star Wars” for May the 4th. Then go to bed …”