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Occupational Therapist Discusses Treating COVID-19 Patients

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Working from home means something different for Alisha Johnson (ph).

ALISHA JOHNSON: Next one - chest out like you're squeezing your shoulder blades together.

SIMON: She's an occupational therapist in the Atlanta area and works in other people's home.

JOHNSON: How do you feel - good, bad, happy, sad, indifferent?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I feel fine.

JOHNSON: OK.

SIMON: Before the pandemic, Alisha Johnson tended to work with people who'd had amputations or who were recovering from strokes or a debilitating fall.

JOHNSON: I love helping people. The kind of therapy that I would do with these patients is to improve their activities of daily living, to wake up, wash your face, brush your teeth, brush your hair, put your shirt on or your pants, to be able to get in and out of the bed safely.

Ready to repeat?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

JOHNSON: All right.

SIMON: She's been an occupational therapist for 16 years. This spring, when her employer asked her to take on COVID patients, she had to seriously consider whether to stay with the career that she genuinely loves.

JOHNSON: It did cross my mind to quit my job. It's like, COVID, woo, you know what I mean? So I did have fears and concerned. Am I going to be a carrier for the disease? Will I get my family sick? With a household of seven people, I don't know how we would quarantine because we share every space of this living space. But the reality is I still have to work and be a provider along beside my husband. So I had to just buckle up and say, this is what we're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: I am currently seeing COVID patients, about five or six. Going into people's homes with COVID, the best way to keep myself safe is wear the full gear, so the mask, goggles or face shield, a gown, gloves and shoe covers. We always perform hand hygiene after care. I would say initially there is a bit of fear there. But in the midst of working, that's not on my brain. At that moment, it's like, how can I help this patient? What is it - what impairments are present? And what is it that we need to focus on to help them regain their strength and their health back?

Are you going to stay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can walk over there.

JOHNSON: OK. Well, come on. Let's go. Yay.

The needs of COVID patients - the biggest thing is the endurance and the fatigue associated with it...

You want to take your braces off?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pop goes the weasel.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

...And then the confinement, the quarantine process. When I enter a patient's home, they're happy to see somebody else coming in to see them. It's like, people, people, (laughter) you know? Coming in as if the the patient is a friend or family member of mine and trying to keep a smile on your face at the same time, I think that goes a long way with the rehabilitation process.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: I recently just discharged my very first COVID patient. It's like - when I discharge a patient, I feel like it's releasing a dove. I'm often sad because you create a relationship and you look forward to seeing your patients every week. It's like we build on each other. There are, like, a lot of taboos or a lot of stigmas associated with the virus. But my COVID patients have taught me to definitely treat everybody like you want to be treated, to appreciate life more, to do my best 100% of the time and to be a better caregiver at home and at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Alisha Johnson, an occupational therapist from Lithonia, Ga. She told us that when she gets home, she gets out of her protective gear and into some chips, salsa and guac and checks in with her family about their day. Her five children are learning online this year, a decision they made to help lower their family's risk for COVID. Alisha Johnson gets tested every two weeks and is doing everything that she can to stay healthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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