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Our chat with a Respiratory Therapist

Meet the man whose job is to breathe for you, when you cannot.  


We sat down with Marvin Nicklas a Registered Respiratory Therapist since 1988.  Marvin has worked all over Western Canada and in the Middle East throughout his career and has been in Prince Albert for the past 15 years.  He is one of 6 respiratory therapists at the Victoria Hospital.

Respiratory therapists are the unsung heroes of our hospitals. They work quietly behind the scenes and always have.  You may be referred to one if you struggle with a chronic lung condition such as COPD, asthma or pneumonia.  Or in the case of an acute emergency or trauma, you will need them to intervene to keep you breathing.   From infants and children to adults, they work throughout the entire hospital in acute care and primary care settings. When it comes to chronic lung illnesses such as COPD, Marvin says there is no quick fix for anything, but respiratory therapists are there to work with each patient and help them understand the importance of their lung health. 

Now, the question on everyone’s minds:  ventilators and this terrible pandemic.  We asked Marvin about this, “When a patient has been deprived of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level, they become hypoxic.  An oxygen level below 80% is dangerous to our vital organs and intervention is required. Ventilating a patient is never our first choice and is almost always a sign that things are extremely serious.”  Ventilation requires sedation to paralyze the patient in order to insert the equipment, and the goal is to have you on the ventilator for as short as time as possible.  “But that isn’t always how it works out”, he said.  What was scary to hear, is how many ICU survivors who come off the ventilator suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Nearly one third of those patients show symptoms of PTSD for up to two years, sometimes even longer. 

“That’s because being on a ventilator is a terrible experience for most people,” Marvin said.  “And once on the ventilator, if things deteriorate, it can be heartbreaking for family and for the patient as there really is no way to say your goodbyes.”

During this pandemic, Marvin said his team has been run off their feet - particularly during the months November – January when hospitalizations and community cases were so high.   Caring for up to 8 ventilated patients in our ICU, and managing many more on other floors with lung and breathing issues, keeps them extremely busy.

I asked Marvin if he was afraid of contracting the virus himself since he is working with COVID patients every day.  He said, “Absolutely.  I worry about it all the time.  I’m 64 after all!   But it doesn’t stop me from going to work, and I push it out of my mind the minute I walk in the hospital door.”

When asked about how COVID compares to the other respiratory diseases he has come across in his 33 years of practice, he said, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  This virus has no rules and it scares the hell out of me.  We cannot predict its path - you think it’s going in one direction, and then all of a sudden it goes another.   People think that only the elderly or those with comorbidities are at risk.” He went on to explain how untrue that is, and that he has even ventilated young, healthy adults.    

Marvin worked through the last pandemic – when H1N1 was circulating and said, looking back, that pandemic was so much easier.   With COVID, “our small hospital in Prince Albert has never seen so many ventilated patients at one time.”  He explained how hard it is on the mental health of staff when they want a patient to get well so badly, and they are not.   When he described their long days, it sounded like a war zone.   The feeling of being emotionally drained and physically exhausted at the end of each day only to come in tomorrow to find more sick people needing help to breathe.  It’s a battle each day, he says.   Thankfully, mental health supports are available for the staff through the SHA, but as Marvin says, “Often you are so stretched for time you are simply in ‘survival mode.’”  He says being able to handle stress and pressure is a vital skill for respiratory therapists and all front line staff since it is a regular occurrence on the best of days.  And on the worst of days such as during this pandemic, it’s the only way to make it through.

Aside from Covid-19, we also learned how critical respiratory therapists are to our sick babies in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Pediatrics and neonatal care also require Marvin’s expertise and knowledge.  Many fragile newborns born at the Victoria Hospital require a respiratory therapist by their side for the first hours and days of their life since the lungs are the last major organ to mature in newborn babies.  In November of 2018, premature triplets were born at the Victoria Hospital and they survived only because of the amazing work of our nursing, pediatric, and respiratory therapist teams.  This is what we mean when we say, “it takes a village.”

Marvin explained one of the hardest parts of his job is wanting to be at the bedside of each patient who needs him.   Unfortunately, like everything else, respiratory therapists must prioritize and manage the crises as each one presents itself.  Being pulled in different directions is one of the greatest challenges they face, so prioritizing becomes critical. Without being able to determine who needs their help most urgently, someone will most certainly face death.

What makes Marvin happy at work?  Interacting with his colleagues, getting to know some of his patients and most of all seeing them survive and return home to their loved ones.  

As a front line worker, Marvin recently received his first vaccination and is looking forward to his second shot.  In the meantime, he will continue to be at the bedside of those who need the help only a respiratory therapist can provide. 

On behalf of the Victoria Hospital Foundation and our entire community, we would like to thank and celebrate the ongoing skill and dedication of Marvin and all our respiratory therapists at the Victoria Hospital. 

Perilous times often illuminate the heroes we never knew existed, and for that, we are all eternally grateful.

By Sherry Buckler|Victoria Hospital Foundation

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