With RTs on the job, kids breathe easier




Sharmain Thomas is a respiratory therapist who treats a steady influx of patients coming into the emergency department.

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

Sharmain Thomas works the overnight shift as a respiratory therapist at Riley Hospital for Children. Her job is to help kids – and their parents – breathe easier.

These days she is routinely assigned to the emergency department, where she sees patient after patient with some kind of respiratory ailment – RSV, influenza, COVID and asthma, to name a few.

It’s no secret that RSV (for which there is no vaccine) and other viruses are roaring back earlier this year, and it’s often the youngest patients who are hit hardest.

“Our acuity level is very high and very unusual,” Thomas said. “The ER for the past couple weeks has been very crowded.”

Typically, cases of flu and RSV – a common respiratory virus that usually causes minor cold-like symptoms but can become more serious and even life-threatening in young children – start to climb in November, peaking in January and February.

“We’re seeing at least four kids in a night shift might get admitted to the PICU for respiratory issues, not just RSV but some with COVID too.”

Many others also are admitted, though not to the critical care unit. And others who are not seriously ill may be sent home with proper care instructions.

Dr. John Christenson, associate medical director of infection prevention at Riley, said while the majority of kids who get RSV won’t need to be hospitalized, parents need to pay attention to their symptoms.

Kids at highest risk for complications include those with weakened immune systems, infants 6 months and younger and children with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease.

Thomas, a mother of four herself, knows what it takes to try to keep kids healthy.

“Wash your hands, get vaccinated, and stay home if you’re sick. I also recommend masks because of the increase of respiratory illnesses in the pediatric world. Unfortunately, a lot of these babies can’t get a vaccine.”

Flu season has been mild the past two years because more people were staying home and wearing masks due to COVID. That means people may have lower levels of flu immunity, so getting a flu vaccine is the best way to avoid getting sick.

“We recommend people get a flu shot if they’re seen in the ER,” Thomas said. “That’s something we can knock out here.”

Not just kids, but caregivers too.

“We can vaccinate the whole family.”

Thomas, described by her co-workers as “dedicated,” “patient-focused,” “passionate” and “a calming presence in times of turmoil,” acknowledges that her work can be emotionally and physically draining, but she is committed to the pediatric population.

“My main objective is trying to keep everybody safe.”

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

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John C. Christenson, MD

Pediatric Infectious Disease