Every day, Laura Trageser suits up to take care of patients at Sinai Hospital as a respiratory therapist. Her day-to-day activities involve blanketing the hospital to assist everyone from babies to elderly patients who are having breathing issues.
With the onset of COVID-19, though, Trageser has had to go to extra lengths to keep herself and her patients safe. She has to use extreme caution when taking care of her patients, specifically due to their already-poor condition.
“When I first saw, in person, how coronavirus was affecting patients, I was terrified,” said Trageser, adding that as a respiratory therapist she sees cases that are “the worst of the worst.”
“I was pretty shocked at how quickly it was taking people down,” she said of the virus. People who started off on a very small amount of oxygen were all of a sudden requiring the highest oxygen requirements possible in just a matter of hours.
“That’s the scary part,” she said. "It was happening so fast and no one knew what the best course of action was to take with these patients, as we’ve never dealt with a virus like this before.”
Given the unknowns around COVID-19, Trageser, a Perry Hall native, said many in her department early on were “anxious, stressed, and scared.” They took added precautions, including scrubbing their hands until they became “firetruck red and raw” at the ends of their shift. Now, the department has adapted, with improved policies and better PPE.
They are provided with disposable masks made and donated by Under Armour that are worn around the hallways and cafeterias. Additionally, each employee is provided with an N95 mask each day and given multiple P110 (pain masks), along with replacement filters for employees who are at a higher risk. A system was created for the ICU to use laundered gowns instead of disposable plastic gowns to conserve and a way to sterilize the N95 masks.
Every day at work, Trageser uses wipes and other disinfectants to clean all surfaces. She does the same at home, going to extra lengths to make sure not to contaminate where she lives. Currently, she isn’t living with her mother and stepfather to protect them from COVID-19.
“I just disinfect like crazy,” Trageser said. “I change my clothes at work and put my dirty clothes in a disposable plastic bag. Wipe down every single thing with hydrogen peroxide wipes: phone, Apple watch, glasses, purse, literally everything. Spray my shoes down, even though I wear shoe covers all day, with Lysol and put them in a plastic container in my trunk and put on sandals to drive home."
When Trageser gets home from work, she goes through the back door andstraight to the laundry room. There, she dumps her dirty clothes and washes them. “Then I go straight to the shower,” she said. "After that, I wipe down everything again.”
For 11 years as a respiratory therapist and four months at Sinai, Trageser has seen the horrific ways in which viruses and other diseases can affect breathing. As a respiratory therapist, she and her colleagues protect patients’ airways. Part of her job, and one of her specialties, is managing the ventilators in the Intensive Care Unit.
Since the onset of the virus, the 21215 ZIP code in which Sinai Hospital is located has seen the most cases in the Baltimore area. The number of victims took a toll on the psyche of medical professionals; currently, 40 respiratory therapists are on staff, with each shift cycling in eight therapists.
For Trageser and her medical teammates, seeing patients walk out of the hospital after recovering from COVID-19 is a ray of light in the darkness surrounding the virus.
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“It’s been pretty emotional, especially with having a patient in the ICU; that hit close to home for all of us,” Trageser said. “I honestly think every single one of us has broken down at some point at work throughout all of this, but I also am amazed at how strong we’ve been. I would put any of my family members in the hands of any of respiratory therapists; they are all so amazing and we are a great team.”
Going forward, Trageser believes the lives of everyone will change in a number of ways in the near future. She also thinks extra protections will be in place for people who work in the medical field, even during the flu season.
“I definitely think it will be normal to see some people wearing masks for a while, and I think people might be more apt to wash their hands more frequently,” Trageser said. “I know that as for my job, this will change it drastically. I’m fairly certain that we will have be overly cautious about our protective gear during every flu season for years to come.”
There is one activity that Trageser would like to see return sooner rather than later — baseball. The respiratory therapist usually frequents Orioles games during the spring and summer. As time has gone by and COVID-19 hasn’t ceded, the Major League Baseball season sits in stasis.
“When they suspended baseball, I was honestly in shock and I didn’t think it would last as long as it has,” Trageser said. “It definitely feels like there is something missing in my life without Orioles baseball. I understand why they did it, completely, but it doesn’t make it any easier on the fans. If we have a season at all this year, I’ll be happy.”