77-Year Old Respiratory Therapist Is Still on the Pandemic Front Lines

At 77 years old, Linda Guzman is in a high-risk age group for COVID-19.

But that hasn’t stopped her from suiting up and working in the thick of the pandemic, in one of the highest-risk and most essential roles: respiratory therapist.

As the oldest staff member at Alhambra Hospital Medical Center — a small community hospital in Los Angeles County where she’s worked for more than 30 years — Guzman has been on the front lines of SARS, H1N1 and now COVID-19, which she calls “the worst and most scary virus I’ve ever seen.”

“This is the first time I’ve witnessed the hospital undergoing serious, extreme PPE precautions,” she says.

Guzman, who works at the hospital a few days a week, lives in nearby La Mirada with her 97-year old mother. On the days she doesn’t work, she babysits for her great-granddaughter. Her four children are more worried about her being exposed than she is, since Guzman and her mother are both in a high-risk category due to age. But her children understand her determination to help out during this crisis.

[Read: Mother-Daughter Nurse Team Both Treating Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Earlier this year, when the pandemic first hit her hospital — a 144-bed, acute-care facility serving a mostly Asian population and located 8 miles from downtown Los Angeles — only a few patients with COVID-19 had arrived. Then there were five. Soon the whole intensive care unit was turned into a treatment area for seriously ill COVID-19 patients. The floor above the ICU has become a space for COVID-19 patients who have come off ventilators but are still recovering.

“Like at other hospitals, surgeries were canceled, visitors could not enter and staff was screened for COVID-19 every day,” Guzmans recalls. “When I’d arrive, the hospital felt like a death zone.”

Before entering the COVID-19 ICU, Guzman goes through an intricate series of steps. She first dresses in her scrubs and mask and then unzips a heavy, vinyl divider leading to the next space where she puts on more personal protective equipment: a surgical gown covered by another plastic gown, an N95 mask, a scrub cap, a hairnet, a face shield, gloves and shoe coverings. Then, she opens the final divider to enter the ICU, made up of individual rooms and curtained areas. After treating each patient, she discards her gowns and gloves in a bin in the patient’s room to prevent the spread of the virus. “We then move on to the next patient and go through the same protocol,” she says.

As a respiratory therapist, Guzman works in one of the riskiest roles on the COVID-19 front lines. The novel coronavirus is transmitted by respiratory droplets. She’s in close contact with patients — many are on ventilators — who need help to breathe or undergo procedures that make them cough. Part of Guzman’s job is to suction their lungs to keep their airways clear of mucus — and to check their lung fluid for color, texture and amount — anything that would indicate a possible blockage or infection. She also checks on their medications, while monitoring their heartbeat, respiratory blood pressure and oxygen levels.

“We haven’t been at a point where every bed in the hospital has been occupied by a COVID-19 patient,” says Guzman, “but we did have to rent some ventilators.”

“At the beginning, a patient would come in sick and be dead two weeks later, but now most patients appear to be making it,” Guzman says. She attributes this in part to procedures that have become common treatments for COVID-19 patients, such as placing them on their stomachs to help them breathe, called proning.

[Read: COVID-19 Crisis Sidelines Some Nurses, Creating Financial Hardship.]

If her patients are able to come off ventilators, she will begin to lower the breathing machine control and check their heart rate, blood pressure and blood values. She begins the weaning process by gradually lowering machine support so patients can start to breathe on their own. When removing a breathing tube, she gives her patients either high flow oxygen therapy or a nasal cannula and observes them for a day or so to be sure they are doing well on their own before leaving the ICU.

When she arrives home after each shift, she’s especially careful to take off her scrubs and all clothing in the garage before entering the house. Everything gets immediately thrown into the washing machine — also in the garage. Before stepping inside, she puts on a pair of sweats and often heads for the shower.

[Read: Her Young Patient Got the First COVID-19 Double-Lung Transplant in the U.S.]

When she’s not working or babysitting, Guzman sews. She’s been making 20 masks at a time. She gives them to her three daughters to give away as they see fit. So far, she’s made about 100 and is still going. She calls this her therapy and urges everybody to wear a mask. She knows they may not be comfortable, but she’s adamant. “I see the results of not taking precautions and most people don’t see what I see, so put on a mask,” she says.

Guzman believes her co-workers keep her young, in touch, relevant and “up on the latest.”

She says she’s been in health care for so long and believes that when she’s needed, it’s important for her to be available to help. “It makes me happy to help patients and I feel lucky because I have my health,” she says. “I also grew up poor, have done well and feel a responsibility to give back.”

More from U.S. News

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Her Young Patient Got the First COVID-19 Double-Lung Transplant in the U.S.

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77-Year Old Respiratory Therapist Is Still on the Pandemic Front Lines originally appeared on usnews.com

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