During the Covid pandemic, some of the hardest workers on the front lines were people like Rhonda Hackleman, respiratory therapist, and Lu Wilford, director of respiratory care at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.  “When you’re really busy like that, you just stay focused on what you’re doing and you just keep moving,” said Hackleman, who recently was awarded the PHIL Award from the Faces Foundation, due in part to a letter of praise from one of her patients, Julie Crouse of LeClaire. “I didn’t even realize I was crying, but she wiped away my tears,” the letter read.  

“I think our therapists in general have really been in the spotlight the last couple of years just for the fact that we’re dealing with the pandemic and major viruses that have really affected the whole U.S., those being COVID, RSV and the influenzas,” said Wilford. “Probably the hardest thing was not knowing everything about COVID. Things changed daily, hourly so just trying to keep up with all that was hard. Our focus was to care for our patients but also the safety of our staff because if we weren’t safe and looking out for the staff, they wouldn’t be there to take care of the patients.” Protocols changed constantly as new information became available from the CDC, but Wilford has nothing but praise for her staff. “We did, in my opinion, a very good job of keeping our staff safe with very minimal contraction within the hospital. That was very impressive from a hospital standpoint, since the staff was on the front line of every high-risk procedure with COVID.”

Lu Wilford (L) and Rhonda Hackleman (Photo courtesy University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics)

Even months later, Hackleman still remembers Crouse. “I don’t remember everything that day, but I remember her because she just looked so scared. I remember her face; she wasn’t talking but what I remember the most was she just had that look in her eyes like she was scared to death.”

“I apparently had COVID before I got a vaccine,” said Crouse. “When I got the vaccine, it divided my body’s immune system’s attention and so my immune system that was already fighting COVID now had to fight it two different ways. The virus looked at the vaccine which is just the empty shell of the virus and it exploded. I actually went first to Genesis East in Davenport and they did not have enough beds; it’s not that they didn’t have enough beds they did not have enough resources for staff to cover any more beds. The doctor on hand reached out to the other hospitals and agencies in the area and found one that had an open bed and that was the University of Iowa hospitals.” They weren’t quite ready for her, so she had to wait at Genesis East until 3 a.m. to make the trip.

“We arrived there just a little before 4 a.m. and it was very very quiet, very dark but the staff instantly went into motion when we got there.” The staff was efficient, but there’s no way to predict when a patient who relies on glasses and doesn’t have them comes in. “I would say that they did a great job from a patient standpoint, but sometimes they forget is some patients have glasses, like I have. They would be talking to me from the foot of the bed and I’m trying to breathe and I can’t see them very well. It was hard to respond when they’re asking me questions when I can’t see them. Of course, I couldn’t wear my glasses because I had an oxygen mask on. It sounds silly, but those people who get right into your face and talk to just you were the people that I could most easily understand and interact with.” Adding to the stress was a lack of oxygen. “My oxygen level was so low that I was in asphyxiation. I was very confused and not able to comprehend all of the questions that they were asking me at the time.”

That’s when the power of human contact came into play and Hackleman reached out, literally to provide comforting contact, which is something she does for all her patients. “Just touching them, maybe holding their hand. I like to wash people’s faces just something I do to all my patients.” Wilford says that respiratory therapists are in a unique position to offer both comfort and commentary on procedures to patients. “A respiratory therapist is one of those team members who are very near to the head of the bed, which means we’re really close to the patient and have the ability to be that whisper in their ear because there’s a lot of chaos going on. Just the reassurance of ‘you’re going to feel some poking’; we’re just trying to help you breathe and just that reassurance in their ear can sometimes help calm them down.”

“She was the person after getting admitted to the University of Iowa who made it a point to speak to me the person, not just a patient, not just a COVID case, but to Julie,” said Crouse. “They all addressed me but again, they’re talking to me from the foot of the bed, they’re talking to me from across the room, they’re pointing to the board on the wall with the names of everybody and I can’t read it.”

As much as Hackleman remembers Crouse, the respiratory therapist made a bigger impact on the patient. “She wasn’t there very long and yet I vividly remember her. I remember all other faces, I don’t remember many of the names of the rest of the staff but I remembered her face, I remembered her name and I remembered her touch.” Hackleman checked on Crouse during her shift, making sure the mask wasn’t too tight and that there was enough gel on her nose to keep sore spots from developing. “At the end of the shift she said ‘I’m not here until Saturday. I don’t want to see you’ and ‘Julie, I see your strength, I’m not here until Saturday, I don’t want to see you’.” Saturday came around and Crouse was still in the hospital but there had been improvements. “She actually walked in like ‘well I hate to see you again today but you look so much better than you did when you first arrived!’”

Crouse still gets emotional thinking about those days in Iowa City. “Every day is a gift and I didn’t think I would see the other side of those doors. She was the first person who talked to me as a person while I was there. I accept challenges and for her to say ‘I don’t want to see you Saturday’ was like ‘OK I’m not going to be here Saturday.’ When I was, it was a disappointment but I was also remembering how far I had come. I was just trying to listen and make sure that I was following instructions and doing what was asked of me.”

Hackleman was recognized for her dedication to her work when she was named one of the 2022 recipients of the PHIL Award. The award is given to respiratory therapists nationwide who provide outstanding care and treatment to patients with respiratory illnesses. Honorees are nominated by patients, family members and other caregivers. It was created in 2006 in honor of Phillip C. Lamka, who died from Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD). It’s a program of the FACES Foundation, which promotes professional excellence in the education and care of patients with life-threatening pulmonary illnesses. “We take nominations for the year and then at the end of the year, through the selection committee, we chose one individual to win overall and Rhonda happened to be the this last year’s recipient,” said Wilford. “So very well deserved.”

Crouse agrees. “Rhonda, I would say that you are an angel on Earth, and I am so grateful that you are my respiratory therapist.”

For more information on the PHIL Award, click here.