Respiratory Therapists Reflect on Lives Saved and Lost During Pandemic


Palomar Health Respiratory Therapist Jessica Singer said she felt like she and her teammates agonized the most over patients during the peak of the pandemic.

“We were there from their first breath to their last breath,” Singer said.

While a main responsibility of a respiratory therapist is to help keep patients breathing, Singer said many of them took on the added responsibility of comforting dying patients.

“I would sit in the room and stand in for their family members and hold their hand until they would actually pass away. It was pretty sad.”

Hospitals throughout the country had a no visitor policy for many months to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until vaccines and low infection rates allowed visitors to return.

As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, respiratory therapists took on a significantly greater workload. At one point, 60 patients were on a ventilator between Palomar Medical Center Escondido and Palomar Medical Center Poway, said Kerwin Pipersburgh, district manager of Respiratory Care for Palomar Health. That is 10 times above normal. Pipersburgh had to triple staffing levels for each shift, bringing in temporary staff from around the country to keep up with the workload.

Despite some of the fears hospital workers had about bringing the disease home to their own families, staff were volunteering to work extra shifts to support patients and their teammates, said Krysti Johnson, Palomar Health supervising respiratory therapist. The unit also experienced fewer sick calls than normal. However, staff were not naïve to the potential hazards of their job.

“Yes, I was scared,” said Palomar Health Respiratory Therapist Renae Murphy, who has been a therapist since 1980. “I felt like I was in a war zone when we were at the height of it.”

Fighting back tears Murphy expressed sorrow that the care team could not save everyone, especially in the early days of the virus before effective therapies reduced the number of mortalities.

“It was really hard; it really was…We tried to save everyone.”

Dominique Salazar, who continued working as a respiratory therapist through her pregnancy, said she is proud of how her team supported each other.

“I felt like we all came together to make this less stressful and easier on us,” Salazar said. “We helped each other take it day by day.”

One of the most recent members of the team, who only became a respiratory therapist in December after being inspired by witnessing his father’s life be saved through respiratory care, admits that he truly feels like a hero.

“Absolutely. I’ve talked to many people who have said ‘I don’t see how you can do what you do being six inches away from somebody’s face that actually has COVID’ when they are terrified,” Stephen Hermanson said. “Somebody has to do it.”

Now that the number of COVID-19 positive patients at Palomar Medical Centers Escondido and Poway has dropped significantly, things are getting back to normal for respiratory therapists but that does not mean their life-saving heroism is any less significant.

Photo Caption: The Palomar Health respiratory therapist team experienced the highs and lows of caring for patients suffering from COVID-19.

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