KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In coverage of the fight against COVID-19, nurses and physicians figure prominently.
But there's another group of health care professionals who are a vital part of the team and don't always get the same recognition: respiratory therapists.
"RTs (respiratory therapists) are the ones there too. We are at the bedside, we are there in that critical care setting with everyone," Carla Encarnacion, director of respiratory therapy at Research Medical Center, said.
They're the guardians of a crucial piece of equipment for patients battling COVID-19.
"When it comes time for you to be put on a ventilator, a breathing tube has to be inserted. A respiratory therapist is that right hand, if not the individual inserting that tube," Encarnacion said.
A respiratory therapist enters settings on a ventilator, ensuring the machine is properly breathing for the patient. That may involve adjusting the oxygen percentage, the amount of air or the pressure.
These health care workers must earn either an associate or bachelor's degree in respiratory care, pass credentialing exams and obtain state licenses.
According to the National Board for Respiratory Care, more than 100 million Americans are affected by respiratory disorders, and more than 125 million patient visits per year are for respiratory illnesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a problem within the field that predates this crisis: a nationwide shortage of respiratory therapists.
"We show the numbers of respiratory therapists entering the field are declining at a rate of about 4 to 7 percent. The demand shows there's going to be a 28 percent need," Lori Tinkler, CEO of the National Board for Respiratory Care, said.
The NBRC, which is based in Overland Park, is the credentialing agency for respiratory therapists.
The organization launched a new campaign with videos of therapists from around the country explaining their jobs and calling for "More RTs."
"Being able to help someone breathe or make their breathing easier is the most rewarding thing. I can't even describe how rewarding it is," Monica Raich, a respiratory therapist from Falls Church, Virginia, said in a video for the campaign.
Another RT based in Chicago described working more than 80 hours a week to care for patients with COVID-19.
"I'm going in on my off days just to support my team and be there for my patients," Tyler Weiss, who works as an RT at Rush Medical Center, said.
The purpose of the campaign is twofold.
"Really using it not only to create awareness, but also to thank respiratory therapists and make sure the world knows they are the unsung heroes and what they're doing on a daily basis not only now, but in the future," Tinkler said.
It's a profession playing a vital role in the fight against COVID-19.
"We are the ones that help keep you breathing," Encarnacion said.