As the patient was wheeled into the ICU Department at CHA Everett last week, she was clinging to health and positive for COVID-19 – struggling to breath.
She needed to get on a ventilator quickly, and the medical team rushed into place with one of the machines as the woman’s breathing got more and more labored.
Ready to intubate her, Everett’s Allen Panarese paused as the woman looked up to him with worried eyes – clearly very sick and also very afraid she might never speak again.
She was afraid she would die, and Panarese – who is also a long-time School Committeeman in Everett – was her lone source of comfort at the moment as he also worked to save her life.
“One of my patients, before she was put on the machine, she looked at me and said, ‘Am I going to die?’” he told the Independent. “I looked at her and said, ‘Not today you’re not.’ She ended up actually being the first patient at the hospital to successfully come off the machine and I’m so happy for that. We found out a few other patients have also been able to stop the machine. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Many in Everett will know Panarese from the Everett School Committee, where he commonly sits around the semi-circle with other members debating school policy and discussing budget expenditures. He has been there for some time, but not nearly as long as he has worked as a respiratory therapist at CHA Everett – formerly the Whidden Hospital. Panarese has worked 41 years as a respiratory therapist, most of them at the CHA Everett hospital. He has been on the front lines at the hospital for weeks now – working days at a time in between short breaks at home.
“It’s just non-stop,” he said. “What the news says how bad it is, it’s that and then some. You get waves of patients with it. Things can be slower and then it just comes in waves. It’s weighing the staff down, but you keep going because you have to. It’s draining and you’re tired, but it’s your job and you do it…This week, we’re starting to see a little slowdown and that’s great. We’re at the peak now and hopefully it will start to go down…It’s a lot of long hours and it’s not just physically exhausting, it’s emotionally exhausting too.”
Panarese got interested in the health industry as a young man, and pursued science out of high school many years ago. While studying at Bunker Hill Community College, he had a friend who was a respiratory therapist and it fascinated him. Watching him work all over the hospital – whether in the ER, the ICU or on the regular floor – he was convinced that was what he wanted to do as a profession. Soon after, he had finished his studies and got a job at the Whidden Hospital. After a few stints at hospitals in Boston, he returned to CHA Everett 17 years ago – and has spent a majority of his 41-year-career working on hospital hill in Everett.
For COVID-19, it’s something that in all those years he’s never encountered. That goes for pretty much everyone else too, he said.
“This virus is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It’s just terrible. It’s certainly nothing like I’ve ever seen in the past. It’s a hard virus to beat. It’s concerning to see people who don’t take it seriously; they don’t want to get this. It has no discrimination in any way, and age doesn’t matter. We’re seeing kids there in their 20s and 30s and we see 50 year old’s too. You have to be very cautious with this.”
Most of the patients Panarese said he sees have been sick two or three weeks, some of them on a ventilator for that long. The CHA Everett can handle about 10 to 12 patients on ventilators at a time, he said. If things get pushed beyond that, they have been able to transfer patients to hospitals in Boston with more capacity. That has been very helpful, as the Everett hospital is a magnet for communities all over the area – including Everett, Revere, Chelsea, Malden and others. It has certainly, he said, been the busiest hospital on this side of the Mystic/Tobin Bridge.
Right now, Panarese said he has been working 12-hour stints on the overnight shift. Often times, they have been so busy at the shift change that he has opted to stay on for another two hours. It’s a pace that – even though the hospital took the virus very seriously – they could not have predicted.
“I don’t think any of us thought it would be like this,” he said. “We knew it would be very serious, but it’s kind of over the top. All the staff, from doctors to nurses, to the respiratory therapists and the cleaning crews – everyone has stepped up and doing the best they can. For the size we are – a little hospital – we’re doing a great job.”
At the moment, Panarese said there is very little thought in the medical community about “going back” and he said there likely isn’t going to be the kind of normal people once knew only a few months ago. There will be changes, he said, and he said some of them could be for the best.
“People have to understand they have to pay attention to the restrictions and to social distance,” he said. “They can’t go back to what they did in large groups. It’s going to change everything. I think people will appreciate life a little more. People are together more now and doing things together as a family without staring at a phone screen. Hopefully, we’ll see the end of this and people can go back to a semi-normal life, and we’ll will be closer as families and as a community.”