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Unvaccinated COVID-19 Patients Barely Surviving, Respiratory Therapist Says

More than 1,000 people in the bi-state St. Louis region and nearly that many across Missouri have died of COVID-19 as of this week. 061920
Kristen Radtke for NPR
Sherri Pipkens of SSM Health says the unvaccinated patients she treats are "barely surviving.” When they apologize to her for not getting vaxxed, she tells them, “Don’t apologize; get better and share your story.”

Sherri Pipkens has been on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 for 17 months. As the lead respiratory care practitioner at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-St. Charles, she helps patients with breathing problems — a major part of caring for COVID-19 patients because the disease affects the lungs.

Pipkens and her team are experiencing their third wave of patients , most of whom are unvaccinated. She told St. Louis on the Air that the patients she’s treating now are younger than the ones in the previous waves.

“Our ICU is just packed at any given time with [people] anywhere between 30s, 40s, 50s [years of age],” she said.

In previous waves, she said, most of the patients were elderly, overweight or had preexisting conditions. Now, she’s treating patients of all demographics. And, she added, the unvaccinated patients — who she estimates are the majority of her patients today — are deteriorating much more quickly.

“The people that do survive are the fortunate ones. And they are walking out of the hospital, but they are ... going home on oxygen. They are going home not able to even go back to their jobs because they're needing therapy like physical therapy, occupational therapy [and] pulmonary rehab,” Pipkens said. “They didn't have lung disease before, [but] now they have a lung disease. Now their lungs look like they've smoked for many, many years.”

Pipkens witnessed patients die prior to the pandemic, but she said that this time is different — that the trauma of the past 17 months is not something she will forget.

Sherri Pipkens joins St. Louis on the Air

“You try to get these people better in this unknown world. You stick with this patient, you build a relationship with this patient, you build a relationship with patients’ families via FaceTime, and then only to come back ... and that patient has passed. And you're just torn.”

Tiffany Sellers, an emergency room nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, agreed that the past few weeks have been mentally, emotionally and physically taxing on health care workers.

“Nurses are getting burned out,” she said. “We still show up and we do this job every day because we want to help, but we need help from the public, too.”

The best way to do that, said Pipkens and Sellers, is to get the COVID-19 vaccine and mask up, even if you are fully vaccinated.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.