Kathy McGinty, a Safety Officer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, gave permission for Heartlands to publish this essay, which powerfully connects all the ways we can’t breathe right now.
When the pandemic of 2020 hit the United States, I could not imagine what a startling change it would bring. Working as a Physical Therapist Assistant in a PT outpatient clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH), I was used to a pleasant atmosphere, lovely patients, and the overall feeling of security. As we started closing down the non-essential places in the hospital, I found myself in a unique role created just for COVID-19. I was trained to be a Safety Officer, meaning it was my job to make sure that COVID did not leave the patient treatment areas and spread into the main hospital. This role took me to various JHH hospitals in the area, and it took me to different units, and each unit treating patients with varying degrees of the illness.
The first time I saw a very ill patient, I was in the ICU. Here, patients are in glass rooms so their nurses can keep a good eye on them. Each time I started a shift, the first thing I did was walk around the unit and get a sense of what was happening and where I would be most needed. That first night, the first room I looked in had a man who had just been transported to the unit. He was half lying on his side, propped on his elbows, and he was gasping for air. His whole body was heaving each time he tried to take a breath. He was getting oxygen therapy, but it was not helping him. His body was not using the oxygen that was coming in, and he was in distress. I stopped and watched him as he was gasping, panting. He kept speaking the same three words to his nurse, and we could barely make them out. “I. Can’t. Breathe.”
A different night, we heard a terrible noise coming from the doors right outside the unit. The sound was so loud and alarming that I thought people were yelling. I would never have guessed that the noise was coming from a frail elderly woman who was coughing because of COVID! “Help me!” she said in between coughs, “I can’t breathe!”
Hearing and seeing the bustle of medical staff preparing for a patient getting transported by ambulance to the emergency room was an amazing thing. The treatment room was readied, and the staff put on their PPE because they knew the patient had tested positive for COVID. The woman was rushed into the room, and the staff got to work. Very little time had passed when I heard the doctor yell, “She’s not breathing! Get the vent kit!” They got the tube down into the trachea, and they turned on the ventilator soon afterward, but it was too late. The woman was too ill to be kept alive even with the machine. She had stopped breathing.
It was my last night in the ICU. When I got there, I did my usual rounds, and I noticed doctors and nurses discussing a patient who was recently brought in but not responding to treatment. She had other ailments that had weakened her body, so when she got COVID, it was easy for the virus to make her very sick very fast. As the hours passed, it was clear she was not going to make it. She had no family by her side to help her with her transition, so an iPad was brought to her, and she and her family were able to say goodbye.
I was there a lot of the time because nurses needed me to fetch things for them, because they could not come out of the room without changing their PPE. The patient was gasping for air. She was panicking. She was alone, and she looked scared. Yes, the nurses were in the room with her, but they were busy with medicines, tubes, adjusting and fixing.
As I looked at her face, her eyes looked into mine. Her mouth was gaped open trying to breathe and her whole body was shaking, but she still kept her eyes looking into mine. I allowed her the comfort of companionship. I stayed there praying and sending her love, I put my hands over my heart for her, and I kept my eyes on hers. I don’t know how long I had been standing there when I heard the monitor signal that her heart had stopped, but she was still aware and looking into my eyes. Then her eyes glassed over, and her body stopped shaking. She died because she couldn’t breathe.
This virus had killed approximately 372,000 human beings worldwide the day I wrote this.
The following week, I was sitting in the break room watching the news with four coworkers, and we looked on in horror as a policeman strangled George Floyd to death. What? We could not grasp the idea of this man dying like that! What? After we have spent countless hours and days and weeks and months trying to keep people who “can’t breathe” alive, this man just up and kills George Floyd while he is saying, “I can’t breathe.”
We all cried at that very moment.
The five people in that break room were: me, a Caucasian woman; a woman from Nigeria, and man from China, a man from Puerto Rico, and a man from Peru.
We all cried together. We had been working tirelessly to save people who couldn’t breathe. We were working even though we knew it might take our lives. We have been there risking our lives so people can breathe again.
During this pandemic, I have heard, countless times, people saying, “I can’t breathe.”
People complain about wearing masks in public because “they can’t breathe.”
Healthcare workers have to wear N95s or rubber respirators or PAPRS, and we can’t wait to take them off, because we say, “I can’t breathe.”
People have had anxiety attacks because of the stress of the pandemic, and they say, “I can’t breathe.”
A friend who lost a family member to COVID said she cried so hard “she couldn’t breathe.”
Now, because of riots, emergency responders have to walk through fires and raids, and I’m sure it is not easy to breathe.
A black friend told me that she has always felt on edge and aware her entire life, and when she has been in certain situations where race might be an issue, the fear built up, and it was hard to breathe.
To me, the pandemic of COVID and the outcry of Black people are from the same virus. Both are taking away the breath of people across the world.
Breath represents the ability to take in life. Each inhalation delivers that which our body needs to survive—physically and figuratively. Physically, when our body is trapped, it dies without breath. No oxygen, no life. Figuratively, when our spirit is trapped, it dies without breath, no freedom, no life.
I’ve seen what happens to the body when people can’t breathe. They have fear and panic. I’ve seen what happens to the spirit when people can’t breathe. They have fear and panic. Both situations, if not tended to and treated well, will lead to decay of life and grief in death. The cough of COVID and the outcry of Black people both say, “Listen to me! I’m dying inside. I can’t breathe.”
Whatever we have to do to tend to the people dying from COIVD, we need to do it. Whatever we have to do to tend to the people dying from injustice, we need to do it.
There are only two emotions: love and fear. From love, there comes care, compassion, assistance, nourishment, and life. From fear, there comes hatred, anger, grief, loneliness, and death.
The people crying out have lived in fear far too long. The fear has bound their lives and taken away their freedom. My only answer to people who are living in fear is to respond to them with love.
COVID and injustice have taken away the breath of too many. Just as we would care for a patient in the hospital with love and compassion, we need to care about those who have suffered injustice with love and compassion.
Let’s treat the virus of injustice with love, just as we respond to people with COVID. Let’s help everyone breathe.
Written by Kathy McGinty PTA, CLT
Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages. –Thomas Edison
Love is the only thing capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. –Martin L. King, Jr.
Love is stronger than violence. –Herman Hesse
Love soothes wounds, while hatred and violence will deepen them. —Willie Stargell