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Being on a ventilator

By Jasmine Belfiore

Diagram depicting the process of intubation on a patient, by Shady Mainman-Brown.
Being On A Ventilator. Image by Shady Mainman-Brown

COVID-19 attacks the lungs - but this resulting lack of oxygen and widespread inflammation can also damage other organs like the kidneys, liver, heart and brain. Even healthy people have been sent to intensive care because of COVID-19 - but what does that actually mean you go through?

COVID-19 can cause severe lung injuries meaning many people will have to go through long periods of time on a ventilator; usually between 1 to 3 weeks.

When you go on a ventilator something called ‘intubation’ is performed, where a tube is placed into the mouth or nose and threaded down the windpipe. Ventilators help you breathe by creating pressure that forces air into the lungs, and gives the body more time to fight the infection. The goal is for people on ventilators to stay calm and awake - yes that does mean you are awake with a tube shoved down your throat. For weeks.

Often patients will be put on benzodiazepines, a type of sedative, to suppress violent coughing and help withstand the distress and pain of a breathing tube. Unfortunately both COVID-19 and benzodiazepines mean many patients develop delirium, or extreme confusion. This means people often try to pull out their tube and become extremely angry or upset.

If you need to stay on a ventilator longer you may need a tracheostomy. This is where a surgeon makes a hole in the front of your neck and inserts a tube directly into the windpipe making it very difficult to talk. If you are lucky enough to be able to come off the ventilator, your body will fight as it tries to breathe, you will feel like you are choking as a nurse comes to remove it. In some cases you may have to go back on a ventilator if your condition worsens again meaning you may have to do this SEVERAL times.

The worst part: a ventilator is your best chance. And there aren’t enough available. This treatment only buys you more time; it does NOT treat the infection.

Wear a mask; because no matter how hard you think it is to breathe with a mask on - its going to be a hell of a lot harder with a tube in your throat and damaged lungs.

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