ST. CHARLES, Mo. – COVID hospitalizations in the St. Louis area are decreasing, but there’s an increasing number of patients who doubt the seriousness of the disease.
Local respiratory therapists say they’ve had direct contact with some COVID patients still in denial even after they are placed on breathing machines.
“I get emotional. This has been hard because we see a lot of people die,” said Sherri Pipkens, a respiratory therapist at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles.
Pipkens, who has been a respiratory therapist for three decades years, hasn’t seen this much death in such a short amount of time.
“We’re taking care of these patients on these maxed-out pieces of equipment for months and months, then only to find them on a ventilator and only to find their family finally coming to make those decisions to allow them to go comfortably,” she said.
Pipkens and other respiratory therapists at the hospitals are being called angels on the frontline for their direct contact with COVID patients. Respiratory therapists maintain airways when patients are placed on breathing machines or ventilators.
“It means a lot to them when we actually have that compassion, and we strive to get them where they need to be so they can get back to their families,” said Shonda Jones, a respiratory therapist at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles.
They’ve arranged for COVID patient Melvin Allen of DuQoin, Illinois, to virtually attend his daughter’s wedding and Pipkens came to the hospital on her day off to be with his family when he was taken off life support.
“Beyond the clinical work that they bring, most of them are unbelievably empathetic and spend a lot time on their own, kind of counseling patients, talking them through the different therapies,” said Dr. Stephali Wulff, system director for infectious diseases at SSM Health.
But now a new challenge – a growing number of unvaccinated patients are denying that COVID is real.
“What I’m seeing right now in these past two weeks, some people aren’t receiving of it…they really push you away with it,” Pipkens said. “They think they’re sick, you go to a hospital, they get a pill, they get an IV, they get whatever, they get the doctor is going to make them better. and they’re going to go home. They don’t know the reality of what we’ve seen for the past months. That no, not everybody goes home.”
Jones adds: “I think sometimes it can be political but they can also be scared, you know, of the side effects, because that’s why they don’t get it. But when they go through this process of COVID and post-COVID and machine after machine, and we finally get them on their feet to be able to walk out of here, then it’s like, ‘Where can I get vaccinated?’ ‘Do you offer the vaccine here?’”
Even when COVID patients leave the hospital, their fight isn’t over. Doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists say they’re seeing some serious issues develop in the lungs of those patients.
“We had an increase in adding on urgent testing to diagnose patients with a recent diagnosis of lung cancer,” pulmonary therapist Kristal Bryant said.
At present, there’s no known link between COVID and lung cancer, but the increase in the disease in post-COVID patients is worrisome to health care providers. Patients also experience shortness of breath, coughing fits, and fatigue.
“Even post-COVID, it’s taking quite a setback. We have to visit a higher level of care and a higher demand of oxygen,” Jones.
According to SSM Health, 85% of all COVID patients in their hospitals in the area are unvaccinated.
“I do believe in the vaccine with all my heart. I think it works,” Pipkens said.