“Not all heroes wear capes. Some of them wear scrubs. Some of them wear uniforms. And some of them wear what you’re wearing right now.” – Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Health Department.
Trinae Jones, a 15-year Mercy respiratory therapist, researched innovative solutions to increase protection for Mercy staff who perform procedures that require close contact with COVID-19 patients. Through a collaboration with community members, she was able to facilitate the production of plexiglass intubation boxes that are now being used in all of Mercy’s departments.
Collaboration Results in Extra Level of Protection When Treating COVID-19 Patients
In the 15 years she’s been a respiratory therapist at Mercy, Trinae Jones has worked with patients with a range of breathing problems from expectant mothers in the delivery room, to trauma victims to patients suffering from cancer, pneumonia and other diseases. Now, she is at the frontline of Mercy’s COVID-19 response.
A GlenOak High School graduate, Trinae, 37, earned her 2-year degree in respiratory therapy at Stark State College. Respiratory therapists work under the direction of a physician as part of a team of healthcare professionals who provide care for patients with conditions such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, chest trauma, as well as other lung and heart diseases.
One of about 60 respiratory therapists on staff at Mercy, Trinae said that the COVID-19 crisis has put the spotlight on her profession.
Trinae usually works in Mercy’s heart unit, intensive care unit and emergency department, but said that she goes where she’s needed. “Respiratory therapists can be found throughout the hospital, we’re very versatile. Often, we’re mistaken for nurses, but we’re here to help keep people alive and breathing. We’re the ninjas of the hospital because basically, we sweep in, do our jobs and then go away.”
The critical shortage of ventilators is well documented, but there’s also a need for respiratory therapists whose job it is to operate those machines. “I hope that little girls and boys will always want to be doctors or nurses when they grow up but now, hopefully they might also start saying that they want to be respiratory therapists.”
Because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, Trinae knew that respiratory therapists would have a crucial role in the treatment plan.
”I’ve been so impressed by how we’ve all come together and helped each other out. I’m blessed to have great coworkers.”
The six-feet social-distancing rule doesn’t apply for respiratory therapists—Trinae can’t do her job without close contact with her patients. “While we have a healthy respect for all contagious diseases, COVID-19 is particularly dangerous because there’s much still to learn about the disease and there’s no vaccine against it. We are in mask, shield, gown and gloves. We have a job to do so we do it.”
She said that she treats COVID-19 patients the same as any other patient. “We assess them, to see if they’re critical or not, and make sure that their oxygenation is adequate. Then, as a team, the doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist come up with a plan to stabilize them and keep them stable. That plan can range from monitoring oxygen levels, to an inhaler or to intubation and a ventilator.”
The single mother of two sons, Justin, 17 and Tristan, 10, worries about bringing COVID-19 home to her family. “I always have that in the back of my head, but especially now. I do appreciate when people tell me to stay safe, but I always aim to be safe, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Thinking outside the box
Trinae is a regular on Respiratory Therapist Breakroom, a Facebook group page for respiratory therapists and RT students. “I’m kind of a nerd,” she said. “I want to see what other RTs were doing to reduce the risk of exposure during intubation.”
She saw that some respiratory therapists were using clear plastic tarps to provide a barrier between the patient and the medical team, so she and her Mercy coworkers gave it a try. “It didn’t work. It slid around and we couldn’t see through it.”
Others on the group page were using a plastic box around the patients’ heads, with arm holes for the respiratory therapist to intubate COVID-19 patients. “It had possibilities,” Trinae said, “But it was too rigid, and I just knew that the arm holes wouldn’t work for our staff who are all different heights and sizes.”
Trinae was brainstorming ideas to reduce the risk of exposure, when her son’s former basketball coach, Paula “P.J.” Vrankovich, contacted her.
“P.J. had seen a prototype of a protective box and she thought of me. She wanted to pass along that her friend, David Chaek, owner of Signs & Graphics in Blairsville, Pa., could make plexiglass intubation boxes if I was interested.”
Working together, Trinae and David came up with a plexiglass intubation box design that was modified to fit Mercy’s needs. She presented the prototype to her Mercy team and after getting the go-ahead from her department’s manager, they tried the new intubation box in the operating room last week.
“Everyone thought it was a good idea because it’s an extra level of barrier to protect us while we’re working with body fluids. Our box has a window instead of the arm holes, so we have easy access and flexibility while we’re working. You want to intubate as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, so the virus can’t get out into the air.”
Now, 10 of the plexiglass intubation boxes are being used in departments throughout Mercy. “They can be used beyond the COVID-19 crisis, for any procedure that could cause a patient’s bodily fluids to be released near the faces of our medical staff.”
“We become their family.”
Mercy, like most hospitals, has a no-visitors policy to protect patients, staff and visitors from the spread of COVID-19. The absence of family members and friends by a patient’s bedside is another cruel aspect of this disease. Trinae said that she and her coworkers do what they can to help patients and their families cope.
“In this situation, we become their family. Our patients aren’t numbers, they’re someone’s father, mother, or child. I’ll often stay by their bedside talking to them, telling them corny jokes, or maybe even singing or dancing for them.” When one of Trinae’s patients wasn’t doing well, she used her own cell phone so the patient and family could connect via FaceTime.
Trinae said that she is grateful for the community’s support of healthcare workers.
“At Mercy, we appreciate all the food that has been donated. Many of us go an entire shift without having time to even think about food. When you sit down for a second to chart, it’s so nice when the food is there waiting for you.”
Many people are donating masks to Mercy. Trinae’s mom, Robin Saunders, has made more than 20 surgical caps and is working daily to make more. “I’ve been giving them to coworkers in all areas of the hospital,” Trinae said. “They provide protection, keep hair out of the way and are a little morale booster.”
On her way to work recently, Trinae made a stop at Starbucks. “The barista asked me where I worked, then thanked me for doing my job.” He then surprised her with a coffee traveler (a to-go carrier filled with the equivalent of 12 (8 oz.) cups of freshly brewed coffee) to share with her coworkers.
“No doubt about it, gestures like this really do make us feel good, like we’re appreciated.”