Nurses and physicians figure prominently in coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s another vital group of health care professionals who don’t always get the same recognition: respiratory therapists. OTC graduate Jeff Atkinson is a prime example, having treated nearly a dozen critical COVID-19 patients so far at Cox South Hospital in Springfield.
Jeff is one of more than 100,000 respiratory therapists in the United States fighting this new, highly contagious illness. A 2011 graduate and former adjunct instructor of OTC’s Respiratory Therapy Program, Jeff says the coronavirus is unlike any disease he’s seen before.
“It’s not like we’re just treating pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome,” he explained. “We’re treating a disease that attacks the hemoglobin, so these people who are severely affected with it have this new inability to carry oxygen.”
A member of the Adult Critical Care Team Lead group at CoxHealth, Jeff helps direct numerous respiratory therapists at work. In an effort to help their patients breathe easier, Jeff and his team help install breathing tubes and carefully manage patients on ventilators, tasks that put them in close proximity to the virus.
“When treating COVID-19 patients, we use protections like foot coverings, a gown, face shields, an N95 mask, and caps – and the PPE changes as we learn more about the virus,” Jeff said. “But the guidance from within my department and hospital leaders has been amazing throughout this entire process. Our safety is their number one priority, and I’m lucky to work with such a knowledgeable group of people as we deal with these new and strange viruses and disease processes.”
In addition to his team at CoxHealth, Jeff taught as an adjunct instructor in OTC’s Respiratory Therapy Program for nine years. He said teaching students was just as rewarding as working in the field.
“I loved helping take these students who had zero knowledge in respiratory therapy, and – in a year’s time – working side by side with them on the most critically ill or injured patients,” he said. “It’s an amazing program – the best in the United States.”
Through his teaching, Jeff’s impact in the respiratory field extends beyond himself. Now, many of his former students work alongside him in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.