EVERETT — Darryl Keffer has worked in hospitals since he was 16, starting out as a housekeeper.
For the last 35 years, he’s been a respiratory therapist — an urgent care specialist focused on issues of breathing, and the relationship between the heart and lungs.
With COVID-19, that means keeping a patient’s airways clean, ensuring they get enough oxygen, and in some cases, managing a ventilator when someone can’t breathe on their own.
Working at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, the first hospital in the country to treat a COVID patient, he’s been dealing with the virus since day one.
“I was hearing people say, ‘Oh, it’s just like the flu,’” he said. “I was like, this is not like anything else we’ve dealt with. This is real. People are going to be surprised at how real and how bad it’s going to get.”
A year later, more than 440 people in Snohomish County have died from COVID — about half those deaths have occurred since November.
In the last five years combined, about 130 people countywide have died from the flu.
“I’m here to tell you, this is not a hoax,” Keffer said.
But, locally, it could’ve been worse, he added.
The early actions taken by Gov. Jay Inslee, he said, including the spring shutdown, helped keep hospitals from exceeding capacity.
He’s heard from colleagues in states that took more time to act, “and they got hit quite a bit harder than we did,” he said.
Keffer and his co-workers in Everett have learned a lot about the virus, how quickly it can spread in waves throughout the county and lead to dozens of people sick in the hospital, especially after holidays.
“There was the unknown in the beginning, but now it’s become the norm, which is kind of sad to say,” Keffer said. “We know how to gear ourselves up for it. When things started to open back up, we could almost time it, like this is when we’re going to get our influx (of patients).”
Another lesson was that COVID doesn’t play by the same rules as other diseases, he said.
In most instances, when a patient can’t breathe on their own, a respiratory therapist will install a ventilator, which helps pump oxygen into the body.
With COVID, that may not be enough. In some cases, a patient on a ventilator working on high settings can still have trouble getting enough oxygen.
But there’s hope on the horizon, he said.
On Tuesday, Keffer received his second and final vaccine shot.
In the next three to six months, the state could have doses available to everyone, as the end of the pandemic becomes more visible.
One thing on Keffer’s mind is lifting up his first grandchild, a baby girl born during the fall, and whom he has yet to hold.
“That’s the hard part,” he said.