KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Respiratory therapists are front and center of the COVID-19 pandemic. The patients who go into the emergency room departments having a hard time breathing due to COVID are the most likely to need a respiratory therapist to help them breathe better.

That’s where May Soun Geizer and her coworkers come in. Geizer has been an RT for 21 years, and at the University of Tennessee Medical Center for 18 of those years. Geizer said this last year and a half has been exhausting.

“The hospital is very busy, unfortunately, because of the high volumes, we are short-staffed, not only because of the lack of workers but because of the high volumes of patients that we have,” Geizer said.

Geizer’s job is literally to help her patients breathe better. She does so through several different types of treatments and therapies, depending on how much help her patients.

“Anywhere from BiPap, which is non-invasive positive pressure ventilation, to more severe cases where patients are having to be intubated with a breathing tube and needing ventilator support,” Geizer listed as the range of treatments.

Geizer sees dozens of patients in her 12-hour shifts. It’s a very active job, having to change her PPE between every patient while running around the hospital.

“We can see anywhere from 20 to 60 patients a day. Yes. And you know, now that COVID numbers have excelled, our COVID patients are all over the hospital, not only on the COVID floors,” Geizer said.

Her job isn’t only physically exhausting, but also mentally. Geizer said COVID-19 patients aren’t allowed visitors, so healthcare workers like herself are stepping up to be their support system.

Sometimes those patients are in the hospital for weeks or months. Their healthcare workers are the only family they’ll see in person during that time.

“We take day by day, taking care of these patients, and just trying to look at everything in perspective. All these patients are most likely alone. And we go home and we go to our families and they’re in the hospital. So I think most of us as healthcare workers are always, have that in the back of our heads, and that’s why we go to work to take care of these patients,” Geizer said.

Geizer said there was a brief moment of hope back in May and June. The cases were going down and the inside the hospital was starting to go back to normal again.

But, that didn’t last too long.

“We just had a year of busyness and change and it’s continuing now and everyone’s just completely exhausted and kind of just losing hope,” Geizer said.

She said right now, a trip to the ER could result in a patient waiting anywhere from three to six hours before they are seen. That’s why the hospital system is asking people to only head to the ER for life or death situations. Because, behind the scenes, Geizer said they are tied up with other patients all day long.

She’ll spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour with each patient, treating and comforting them, before moving on to the next room.

Being short-staffed with high patient volumes and seriously ill patients takes a toll on healthcare workers, Geizer said.

“There’s days after 12 hours, I’m just so exhausted that you know, I’m not even able to sleep because my body is so tired and exhausted. Not only my body, but mentally exhausted, knowing that the patients, we’re trying to do the best that we can for them, but sometimes that’s not enough,” Geizer said.

She said the only hope they have is that more patients get vaccinated. From personal experience, she said the vaccine is what seems to be keeping what could be more patients out of the hospital.

“Average of 85 to 90 percent of the patients in the hospital are unvaccinated. So I do, I very much promote everybody to get vaccinated,” Geizer said.

UTMC still has its vaccine clinic open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., no appointment is necessary.