Covid-19 nearly wipes out Respiratory Therapy student’s career ambitions
It was January 4th and Zeenat Ali’s first day of class for her Respiratory Therapy (RT) program on the Rancho Cordova campus. She was excited to start the same program her husband, Tasleem, had begun just a couple of months prior. But she woke up that morning feeling that something was terribly wrong. Her temperature was 104.8; she had a headache, cough, nausea and had lost her sense of taste and smell.
“I reached out to my instructor and told her I was not going to be able to make it (to class),” says Zeenat. “I asked if I was going to get in any kind of trouble.” She was encouraged to work from home and within a couple of days Zeenat was able to lie on the floor with her laptop and listen to lectures. Her sense of taste and smell slowly returned and at the end of the second week she felt that whatever she had was on its way out. It was not.
She suddenly lost her motor skills and was unable to walk without Tasleem’s help, and she could not hold anything in her hands. Her vision was blurred when she managed to squint open her eyes, and her speech was slurred. She began to panic.
Local hospitals were filling up because of Covid, but she knew Tasleem had to call an ambulance to take her to the Emergency Room. The ambulance attendants asked a lot of questions to which she was mostly unable to respond. Her fear was that the ER was so overloaded with Covid patients, they would send her back home. They took her vitals, which appeared normal. She did not feel normal.
“They couldn’t figure out what was going on with me,” she remembers. “But that night in the ER my heart rate and blood pressure got real high and they transferred me to the cardiac unit and did lots of tests there. They did a spinal tap and from that they found out that I had Covid, and that it went through my spine, toward my brain. My brain’s automatic response was to fill up with fluid which created inflammation of the brain.”
On Zeenat’s second day of hospitalization, Tasleem was allowed to see his wife. As a hospital Patient Mobilization Technician at the hospital, he was very familiar with the hospital’s protocol and restrictions. “To hear my husband’s voice and see his face when he came to the door, he was like an angel come to save me,” Zeenat recalls. “Everything’s going to be OK now.”
Still unable to coordinate her movements, Zeenat could not feed herself from the trays that had been left for her those two days. Now Tasleem would come to her room twice daily and patiently feed her. “Every day I was in the hospital I would think of every little thing we take for granted, like feeding ourselves or brushing our teeth,” she reflects. “But I’m so glad I never got to the ventilator part. I had everything go wrong except for breathing issues.”
When she was transferred to the rehabilitation facility a few days later, Zeenat knew she was going to be ok. She knew she was ready to push hard to get back to something that resembled normal. That included school. She was ready to dive into her neglected Respiratory Therapy studies. Amazingly, she had never considered dropping out of the program.
“My husband brought my iPad for me to listen to the lectures,” she says. “At first, I couldn’t write, so my assignments were pushed back. But when I started doing occupational writing in rehab, I slowly started writing, then doing homework. I’d gotten so far behind, it put a lot of pressure on my brain. Therapists talked to me a couple of times about stopping school, but I wanted to do this, I wanted to stay in the program.”
For the first few days in the rehabilitation department Zeenat was afraid to sleep, fearful she might not wake up. When she would startle awake at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, she would start doing homework rather than toss and turn anxiously.
Most people would have at least taken a leave of absence from their program studies. Not Zeenat. “I felt like it was going to be now or never, and I didn’t want it (Covid) to slow me down. And the teachers were willing to give me enough time to catch up with everything, and I took advantage of that. The assignments and lectures kind of kept me going physically and mentally.”
Tasleem gave his full support toward the direction Zeenat was determined to go. “We’d been married for 8-years, and my husband left it totally up to me to make the decision,” she says. “I told him, ‘I can’t just let it go; I’ve worked too hard to get into school. I want to do it’; and he was totally supportive of that.”
Tasleem’s support went beyond verbal approval of Zeenat pushing toward her education and career dreams. When she was finally strong enough to go home, he took charge of their daily living responsibilities. “He took care of everything,” she remembers. “If I tried to get up or go to the shower, he would be there. He tried to do the laundry and fold clothes – and bless him, he was terrible at it. He would stand with me in the kitchen when there was something I had to do. And he would push me saying, ‘Let’s go for a walk’, sometimes just walk out back in the garden of tomatoes and chilies until my blood pressure and heart rate would go up. We made progress every week. I definitely would not have been able to do this without him.”
The path to recovery is a familiar one to Zeenat. Before she was married, she was a caregiver in a long-term facility for older people, many with dementia. One patient stood out to her. “When I came to help her out of bed, she would dig her nails into my hand. I would tell her, ‘OK, we’re gong to do this.’ I got her from the bed to the wheelchair, then to the walker and moving around. We took one step at a time. She couldn’t talk, so I didn’t know if she appreciated it, but she actually started listening so, to me, it felt like she understood. But now she has gone back to bed, she stopped eating and is not moving around too much. I go into her room, hold her hand and just start crying.”
Zeenat shares this experience with fellow Respiratory Therapy students, along with her own first-person experience of having something terribly wrong with your body and feeling that you are not being heard by those in charge of providing care. “When I first got to the hospital, everybody was scared to be around me. I heard them say things, I felt it in the way they didn’t attend to my needs. And you don’t want to call for their help because they’re afraid of you.”
As a patient, Zeenat had a lot of inside information to share. “I tell my fellow students that the reason I’m telling them all this is so that they will be more compassionate. Patients feel helpless, just laying there. And we’re going to be around Covid patients, treating them, their airways. Those patients are not just sick, they could possibly be a threat to us. But we should treat people equally. Make them feel comfortable and confident. Make them feel they can talk to you.”
Her first day back on campus several faculty members gave her big hugs. “Mrs. Foss welcomed me, literally, with open arms. It gave me such a warm feeling in my heart.”
Zeenat is on track to graduate from her Respiratory Therapy program. She has earned a 4.0 GPA and was recently honored as Student of the Month. “She is amazing and a true inspiration. Such a hard worker and never used anything (including hospitalization) as an excuse to not be a top performer,” said Ashley Sakamoto, Instructor.
As Zeenat enters the medical field as a Respiratory Therapist she will bring her skills, education and very personal experience into play and to the benefit of all those she treats.
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