By Rebecca Jones

Intensive Care

UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center Team Works Long Hours on Behalf of New Mexico’s COVID-19 Patients

From the moment they step into their scrubs for a shift, the health care providers at The University of New Mexico Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho click together as a team to ensure patient care runs smoothly.

"It's been good as far as our unit is concerned," says Kirsten Del Mastro, RT, night shift lead respiratory therapist. "We come together and work well together. We're all on the same page."

Having the doctors there means that they're learning all the time, she says.

Del Mastro, who spends long hours caring for COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit (ICU), came up with a method for staff to communicate each patients' health status by using dry erase markers on plexiglass to document changes.

It has become an essential tool in their bedside reporting, and allows the SRMC team to easily review the changes in the patients each day. They track changes in medications and any new developments that occur overnight, she says. "We don't have to pull up the chart every time we see the patients," Del Mastro says.

There are generally eight to 10 patients in the ICU diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Treatments include using an Optiflow, a device that delivers varying mixtures of pure oxygen and air ranging. The Optiflow helps prevent critical patients from having to be placed on a ventilator, she says.

"The oxygen and titrate blend open everything up for them," Del Mastro says. "The patient's oxygen is usually really low at this point." They aren't able to complete full sentences, for example.

Some patients with labored breathing feel better when they're placed in a prone position, Del Mastro says. And some also need a ventilator to help breathe.

"When we put someone on a ventilator, we do that so we can get them better," she says. "We have to give the patient sedation and paralytic drugs. Tubes are placed down their throat. When they're placed on the ventilator it controls how big a breath they can take."

The longer patients stay on the ventilator, the more recovery they'll have to undergo, she says. Scarred lung tissue can cause long-term problems, and some patients might require supplemental oxygen for the rest of their lives.

"Patients become very weak and will need a lot of rehabilitation for walking again," Del Mastro says.

The sacrifices made by SRMC's frontline health care team extend beyond the hospital doors.

Del Mastro says she and her coworkers spend what seems to be countless hours at SRMC. On their off hours, some wear a mask the whole time they're at home, and some have sent their kids away to stay with relatives for fear they'll infect their families.

"They have positive attitudes, despite what's going on," Del Mastro says. "We love our jobs."

Although businesses are gradually opening up throughout the state and the hospital is steadily resuming normal operations, the community should remember the virus is still spreading, and people should go out only if necessary. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing will help protect others.

You can make a donation to support SRMC health care workers by visiting the UNM Foundation.

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