“I wish people could see what we see”

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09/15/2021

Aimeeweb1

A respiratory therapist talks about fear, pain and resilience as COVID-19 strikes more kids.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Aimee Ealy has seen the fear up close.

The fear in the eyes of young patients struggling to breathe. The fear in the eyes of parents who want desperately to see their child healed.

Ealy is 21 years into her career in respiratory therapy, a job not many understood until a pandemic thrust that role into the public eye.

She sure never expected to be working amid a global disease outbreak that has killed more than 650,000 fellow human beings in the United States alone. She never expected that two of her own children would be Riley kids either.

But life is unpredictable. And Ealy walks by faith, choosing to accept the trials along with the triumphs and follow her calling as a healthcare professional.

RILEY ANGELS

Ealy is one of the many “angels on Earth” who walk the halls of Riley Hospital for Children. That’s how at least one observer described her and her colleagues.

It wasn’t until college that she figured out what she wanted to do in life. But the career influence started much earlier.

As an asthma patient and a Riley kid herself, she was introduced at a young age to healthcare.

“I really liked the science of respiratory therapy,” she said. “I like working with the physicians and figuring things out. It involves a lot of critical thinking.”

Respiratory therapists treat patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks, drowning or shock.

Now a clinical specialist for respiratory care, Ealy does education, training and patient care, primarily on 7E, the pediatric intensive care unit.

SCARED FOR HER KIDS

Eighteen months ago, she and her colleagues in the PICU were racing to learn as much as they could about COVID-19 and how best to support patients. They ran through multiple simulations, worried not only about keeping patients safe but keeping themselves safe.

“It was really scary at first because I was worried that I might bring this home to my family,” Ealy said. “I have two children who wouldn’t fare very well with it.”

Ealy and her husband, Dan, have three sons, ages 19, 17 and 15. The oldest battled cancer two years ago, and the middle son has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a rare genetic disease that leads to progressive muscle degeneration.

Those early days of the virus were pretty scary. But things didn’t get really hairy in terms of patient load at Riley until this summer, she said.

“Between COVID and RSV, we’ve been hit really hard. It’s horrible. When I go in, I know that I’m probably not going to get a lunch break and never leave the unit. It’s just so busy. It’s 12 hours of not sitting down, just being slammed.”

RESILIENCE AND HEART

Beth Summitt, director of respiratory care at Riley, has known Ealy for her entire career. The two were in school together, though Summitt was a couple years ahead of Ealy. They worked side by side for years until Summitt took a leadership role 2½ years ago.

“Aimee is one of the most respected people in our department. She is clinically amazing, and she has a heart of gold,” Summitt said. “She’s one of the most resilient people I know.”

But even Ealy is anxious about the rising patient load at Riley. And when it comes to COVID, she wishes she could show people how bad it is.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I wish people could see what we see. I think they would take it more seriously,” she said. “You don’t understand what this does. People will say, well, they didn’t die, so it’s OK. It’s not just death. It’s seeing what these families go through. These kids come in, they’re scared, they can’t breathe, they see all this stuff on the news.

“To see these kids go through that, and when they look at you and say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ it’s hard. Say your child does get it and they survive,” she continued. “If they’ve been in intensive care, it’s months of rehab, it can affect the heart.”

In the most serious cases, which is what she sees in intensive care, it’s Ealy’s job to intubate patients by putting a breathing tube down their throat. She tries to reassure the child and parent that she is going to help them breathe, “but I also don’t want to say everything’s going to be OK.”

Because she doesn’t know that.

“They are just so sick.”

VACCINATIONS ARE KEY

At first, she was frustrated when she would hear people say that the virus only affected older people and those with co-morbidities, such as diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, etc.

“Those people are not disposable. My sons are not disposable. My parents are not disposable.”

With the introduction of vaccines in December 2020, her anxiety leveled off, especially this year when she was able to get all of her teenage sons vaccinated.

But now, the virus is coming for kids, a large swath of whom are unable to be vaccinated yet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warned this week that the number of COVID cases in children has risen “exponentially,” accounting for nearly 30% of new cases last week.

“My house is vaccinated, so that was a relief,” Ealy said, though she worries about breakthrough infections, which are rare, according to the CDC, and typically don’t result in serious illness.

Overall, more than 9 in 10 COVID hospitalizations and deaths now occur in people who are unvaccinated, studies have shown.

Ealy has seen death in the PICU. She wouldn’t be human if it didn’t shake her.

The past year and a half have been traumatic for everyone, she said. From sickness and death to mental illness and isolation, it all takes a toll.

“There is so much misinformation out there,” Ealy said. “What frustrates me is people will trust us when their child is sick, but they won’t trust the medical community when it comes to vaccines.”

CALMING FEARS

Summitt has watched Ealy and the other 140 members of the RT department rise to meet the COVID challenge at Riley Downtown, IU Health North, Riley at IU Health Methodist Hospital and Methodist labor and delivery, soon to be moving to Riley’s new maternity tower.

“In the height of COVID the first time (2020), I could tell that my team was going to battle significant fear, because this wasn’t just something we were going to face at work. We’re all facing this in our personal lives as well,” Summitt said.

“We started seeing the numbers spike and I was having more and more team members out with COVID, and we had to figure out how to handle that with privacy concerns,” she said. “There was just this extreme panic and fear.”

She calmed those fears with the best thing she could offer – information and communication. She began doing twice-daily group calls with her team, updating them on rapidly changing procedures, sharing as much information as she could about protective equipment, the number of ICU beds that IU Health had available and the number of ventilators in use.

“I had to be the voice of calm for my team and tell them we’re going to get through this,” she said. “This is why you came into healthcare. We are the emergency people. Respiratory therapy is who they call when it is literally hitting the fan. We’re the airway people. This is your day.”

It was a rallying cry.

HEROES AT THE BEDSIDE

Never before had she seen respiratory therapy highlighted on the news like it has been during COVID. She used it to motivate her team in those early months, then she gave them the facts.

“This is what I know today; it’s going to change tomorrow,” she would tell them, because guidelines and procedures were constantly changing to meet the evolving threat.

Ealy found those calls extremely helpful.

“As we learned more, we changed not only how we cared for our patients, but how we protected ourselves,” she said. “It also put to rest any rumors that may have started.”

Today, even though cases have risen, the team feels better prepared to handle the crisis because they have learned so much over the past 18 months. That experience and her sons’ illnesses have made Ealy a better clinician, said Summitt, who also has a child who is a Riley patient.

“You think you’re a compassionate person, but when you’re really on the other side of the bed and it’s your child that people are taking care of, it’s just amazing how you look at that situation differently,” Summitt said.

“Now, giving the best care designed for you is not just a slogan. We know what that looks like. We know when it’s done well and when it’s not. It has changed both of us.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org