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caption: Federico Olivas is a respiratory therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center.
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Federico Olivas is a respiratory therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Credit: Eilis O'Neill/KUOW

'It's a different perspective:' How having Covid-19 himself changed this respiratory therapist

Federico Olivas is a respiratory therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center. He manages teams at the Northwest and Montlake facilities that treat Covid patients who need ventilators.

His perspective on Covid changed when he got the disease himself this November.

I went to work and I was feeling normal. But around 12 o'clock or one o'clock, I started feeling very hot. And it wasn't your normal hot because you're walking around, moving around, things like that. It was a little different.

And then I started feeling shivering. And as soon as I felt that, then I was like, "Okay, I need to go, just in case."

So I signed up for the test, told my coworkers, and I took off.

When I got the notification, it got into my head: "How can I, being the director of the program, being respiratory therapist — it’s affecting respiratory therapists, I do the research, I know these things — how does it look that I got Covid?" And I felt ashamed; I felt embarrassed; I felt like my team might not be able to trust me on what I teach them, what I talk to them about: How to stay safe.

Then I had to tell my wife to make sure she's not touching anything, that she's wearing at least a mask in the house when we’re together. So I went into, "What else do I need to do? Who else do I need to tell? Who should I be protecting?"

I was scared in the sense that I know how severe it can get for some people. I kept thinking, "Well, I'm still 40; I'm not that old; I don't have a lot of the other things that people might have that makes it worse for them." But you never know with this virus.

In the night, I started getting the fevers really, really bad. I remember the following days, I was just super tired, and I couldn't do much, and the fevers were all over the place. I was shivering super hard. So all I did was just lay on the couch.

One day, two of my friends decided that they wanted to just come by and grab us food, so they grabbed us teriyaki, and they came over. They dropped it off, and then, from the window — and I'm on the second floor — so, from the window, we were just chit-chatting. And, within a couple minutes, I just got really emotional and started crying.

And, if you know me, I don't usually get emotional like that. And it was just sobbing. I knew it was most likely because I knew the situation that I was in, and I had not seen people for a long time. And emotionally it was taking a toll.

That Thursday, I started feeling the shortness of breath, and I started feeling more chest pressure. Then that's usually when your thinking, [because you are a] respiratory therapist — it starts to go crazy. When I [would] get up to [go to] the bathroom — just to walk in there — I would just get into these coughing spells and I just couldn't catch my breath. I wasn't sleeping because I was just coughing and coughing and coughing.

And finally, on Saturday — on the 14th, I think it was — is when I decided to go to the hospital. I walked in and checked in and they got me right away into the room.

That night, I just kept coughing and coughing and I couldn't sleep, and so they sure enough gave me something, and I don’t know what time I passed out. I was there Saturday, Sunday, and then I was released on Monday morning.

Now that I have had Covid, it's a different perspective. Those four weeks that I was completely just making sure that I was on the phone or things like that — it was hard. And I think, for my family, it was also hard to see me in that way.

Feeling that, I guess, distance, and having support, but not really feeling it physically, I can relate to [my patients'] pain more. Before, it was more, "I'm trying to help you and understand you." But it's not the same — having felt it, [rather] than trying to understand what they're going through.

We always have different layers to protect ourselves emotionally from what's going on. And I think we put those walls — such as, "Okay, this patient has all these conditions, and that's why they're here, right?" Or, "This person was doing this and that's why they're here." But, when you know someone — their routines, the things that they do typically — and then you see that they get it as well, it changes things in your mind, and it makes it real.

This story includes music by Loston, licensed via MusicBed. Alec Cowan wrote our Voices of the Pandemic theme song. Sound design was by Joshua McNichols.