Health care heroes: a hand to hold

Respiratory therapist Audrey Pickel worked around the clock to meet the overwhelming influx of COVID-19 patients. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is part three of a nine-part series on health care employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more stories, click here.

Audrey Pickel, a full-time respiratory therapist at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, did a lot of different respiratory-related things at the hospital. She helped with inhalers and nebulizers, helped with oxygen therapy and worked with those with higher needs such as ventilators and BiPAP machines. She and the other respiratory therapists helped care for children, adults, the elderly and babies in the NICU.

Then COVID-19 hit. “Everything they ever taught us in school has been that, but on steroids. Any patient on a ventilator, instead of typical settings for age and gender that might be at 35% to 40%, are now at 100%,” said Pickel, who has been a respiratory therapist for 13 years, all at Saint Mary’s. “All the bells and whistles were busted out for COVID. There was no wiggle room for patients.”

They put patients in the proning position (laying on their stomachs), borrowed rotoprone beds that rocked patients back and forth in the prone position, set oxygen levels at the highest possible settings. “We’ve had more patients on the rotoprone beds in one year than ever before,” Pickel said.

She is one of 53 respiratory therapists, plus two aides, now on staff at Saint Mary’s. She described having 12 therapists on per shift during COVID-19, up from about seven in pre-pandemic days. She and many of her coworkers had to pick up extra shifts.

“A lot of us were OK with that; we knew we needed to work more,” said Pickel, who has three children. She and her husband bought a bigger home over the summer to accommodate her growing family. She didn’t stay in a different house from her family, choosing instead to strip down in the garage and immediately shower when arriving home after a shift. She didn’t get COVID-19 and neither did her family. About 10 of her 50-plus coworkers did, but most suspect they got it outside the hospital.

Outside of work, Pickel concentrated on updating and painting the new house, intent on keeping herself busy and being outside as much as possible to help fight the feelings of despair that threatened to overwhelm her.

COVID-19 has been especially difficult for Pickel, who calls herself a highly sensitive person. Her family wanted her to take a leave of absence, but she didn’t, reiterating her calling as a respiratory therapist to help people and share her knowledge and experience.

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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