As the number of COVID-19 cases started rising in New York City earlier this year, two alumni of ETSU’s Cardiopulmonary Science Program, Rayford Johnson and Jessica Burleson, were among a group of respiratory therapists from across the country who decided they wanted to use their professional abilities to help.
Johnson and Burleson have never met and they took separate paths to New York this spring, but both are currently on the front lines, caring for patients on COVID floors in two New York City hospitals. Both said they have never seen anything like what COVID has done to hospitals and patients, and both agree that they would not want to be anywhere else right now.
Rayford Johnson, a Johnson City resident, graduated from ETSU with a degree in microbiology in 1990. In 1991, he returned to ETSU to complete the cardiopulmonary program.
His career has taken him in many different directions, including work as a respiratory therapist (RT) in hospitals and home care, as well as his own sleep lab, a business that he eventually sold to a local health care provider. He also took a hiatus from respiratory therapy with a 14-year career in pharmaceutical sales and as director of ETSU’s Innovation Lab.
But Johnson returned to his first love – working with respiratory therapy patients in a hospital setting. Before COVID-19 made its way to the U.S., Johnson drove over the mountain to work at Mission Hospital in Asheville.
After COVID, everything changed.
“Of course, we were hearing how badly they needed respiratory therapists to work with all of the COVID patients in New York, and a friend told me about an opportunity to go work there,” Johnson said.
Johnson resigned from his job at Mission and signed a contract with a staffing company that was placing RTs in New York’s hospitals, where they were badly needed. He was assigned to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, one of the city’s top COVID hospitals.
“It can be stressful because the numbers are overwhelming,” Johnson said. “Hundreds of people show up in one day, and on the first day I was there, I intubated 16 COVID patients. You just have to put your head down and have the confidence that you can deal with these issues and do what you were trained to do.”
While RTs are trained for the day-to-day tasks in a COVID unit such as intubation and running ventilators, there are some aspects of COVID that no one was prepared to see.
“The hardest part is watching patients go through this without their families,” Johnson said.
While Johnson is alone in New York, he said he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from New Yorkers. Thank you notes hang in his hotel lobby and he is often greeted appreciatively on the street as he walks to and from work.
“Before all this, RTs were often forgotten, but one of the things this crisis has done is brought RTs to the forefront, and people really appreciate what they are doing,” Johnson said.
Jessica Burleson has felt the same sense of support since she left her home in Hampton on April 13 to work at NYU Langone Hospital in Manhattan.
Burleson chose a career in respiratory therapy after experiencing the impact RTs had on the life of her premature baby.
She graduated from ETSU’s program in 2001, and has worked as an RT in local hospitals ever since. Now a mother of two grown children and a 16-year-old daughter, Burleson grew concerned about working as an RT during COVID; she didn’t want to bring the virus home to her daughter or husband.
“I was potentially exposing my family every time I went to work, so I when I heard they needed RTs in New York, I thought about just going to work there by myself and not putting my family at risk,” Burleson said. “Also, I just kept thinking that if Tennessee were in the same situation as New York, I just hope someone would want to come help us.”
With her family’s support, Burleson resigned from her job of almost 20 years and went to New York. When she arrived at NYU Langone in Manhattan, she was surprised that there were nine COVID ICU floors, with 30 ventilators to each ICU unit.
While she misses her family in Tennessee, she feels the appreciation of those she works with and for in New York. She looks forward to being home with her family when her contract ends on June 6. In the meantime, she encourages everyone to take the virus seriously.
“This virus is real, it’s happening,” Burleson said. “It doesn’t pick and choose. If you can, stay home and stay safe.”