Hospitals In Focus

“It’s just a roller coaster with COVID.” Frontline view of the pandemic from Rural America


Jessica Smith, a respiratory therapist from outside Pulaski, Tennessee, is well known in her small community for her extraordinary dedication and compassion to her patients and family. In this episode, Jessica explains to Chip that like many frontline caregivers she has begun to experience “hero fatigue,” but adds that she still loves her job and does her best to focus on the positive. Her inspiration home life, along with her work ethic led to her winning LifePoint Health’s Mercy Award this year. The episode wraps up with her talking about what that recognition meant to her and her team at  Southern Tennessee Regional Health System.

As the COVID19 pandemic continues, so do acts of compassion and heroism from frontline caregivers battling to save lives. But as the Delta surge begins to wane, what is really going on the frontlines? 

In this episode of Making the Rounds, Chip spoke with Jessica Smith, a respiratory therapist from Pulaski, Tennessee, about how she manages to accomplish what her co-worker describes as an inspirational work-life balance during these very stressful times. 

“My aunt was a nurse. She helped people in various ways, and so I knew that I wanted to follow the medical field. I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” Jessica told Chip. She also discussed where she found her passion for patient care, even during the toughest parts of the pandemic, “I do what I do because I love my job. I love to help people and I try to treat everyone just as if it was my family.” 

She then gave a very real assessment of the mood on the frontlines, and how many of the nurses are becoming tired after months of long hours and stressful shifts. “Hero fatigue is very real. There really are no words to describe it. You feel like you, you push and you push and you push, you work with the patients. And then a lot of times things don’t end up always we want them to.”

Jessica drives 70 miles to work every day and lives with her husband, her 7-year-old son who is autistic and also serves as the primary caregiver for her mother who is engaged in a long battle with breast cancer. 

She explained that her home life, which may seem challenging to many, is what keeps her going.

“The last couple of years have been a little more difficult than the prior years, but we have really grown to rely on each other as a family.”

It is her dedication to her patients and family that led to her recently being honored with LifePoint Health’s Mercy Award, which is named after LifePoint’s founder Scott Mercy. It is given to an employee who has profoundly touched the lives of others and embodies the spirit and values upon which the company was founded.

Jessica expressed gratitude to LifePoint for the award and for its support throughout the pandemic. She never expected to win but said she and her team have been smiling since the ceremony. “It’s not, it’s not been about me. It’s been about my team here at Southern Tennessee Regional and Pulaski.” 

Speaker 1 (00:02):

Uh, today we are joined by a respiratory therapist from Tennessee Jessica Smith, who knows a thing or two about the work-life balance. Jessica has taken her passion from her personal life and translated it to a caregiving career going above and beyond, particularly during COVID-19. I will let her tell us a bit about the constraints she has overcome. Her dedication to family and her patients is truly inspiring. Her coworkers recognize Jack Jessica’s strength, compassion, and humility, which serves as a shining light and source of hope for those who cross her path. This kindness and commitment led to Jessica recently being awarded LifePoint health company-wide mercy award named after Scott mercy, the company’s founding chairman and CEO. Jessica. Thank you so much for joining us today from Pulaski, Tennessee, uh, to get started. Will you tell us a bit about your personal life and why you became a respiratory therapist?

Speaker 2 (01:07):

Um, to start out a little bit about myself, I grew up in a small town, so I’ve always wanted to work in a small town. Um, I, I am married. Uh, I have a seven year old son who is my pride and joy. Um, Garrison happens to have autism, so he is a little bit extra special, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Also, my mother lives with me, I’m her caregiver. She has had a 21 year battle with breast cancer. So the last couple of years have been a little more difficult than the prior years, but we have, um, really grown to, um, rely on each other as a family. Um, I became a respiratory therapist because I always knew I wanted to help someone as a child. I wanted to grow up to be a nurse. My aunt was a nurse. She helped people in various ways.

Speaker 2 (02:11):

And so I knew that I wanted to follow the medical field. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. And when the time came nursing school just didn’t seem to be, for me, a neighbor got accepted into a nursing program. So I got a little discouraged along the way and, and applied to the respiratory program, not really knowing what a respiratory therapist did truthfully. Um, uh, my grandfather had some lung history, um, and growing up, I only saw them come in and do breathing treatments. And honestly, I thought that’s what a respiratory therapist did. I thought a respiratory therapist with someone who just gave her a breathing treatment. Once I was accepted into the program, I found out that there are many more things that a respiratory therapist does other than just giving a breathing treatment. So, um, I made it through the program. I absolutely love my job. I would not trade it for anything in the world. It is a true blessing every single day to come into my job and be able to help someone in a small way or a big way. I’m always glad to be a help to someone. Okay,

Speaker 1 (03:23):

Jessica now, as we face COVID-19 you as a respiratory therapist, how do you fit in to this fight? Uh, and particularly now that you know, we’re facing Delta and we even have, uh, in some areas and I think maybe, uh, where you are, um, in a higher levels of, uh, hospital occupancy and severity of illness than we saw even a months ago at the beginning of COVID

Speaker 2 (03:52):

Our role in, in the fight against COVID is, um, it’s a pretty prominent role. A lot of people had never heard of the respiratory therapist until COVID-19 came around. And so now we’re out there a little bit more people recognize this a little more than in the past, but our role is always been airway management. And I feel like that we’ve, um, our role hasn’t changed a whole lot in caring for patients. Um, it’s just a roller coaster with COVID no two patients are the same. We’ve had to adapt to new ways of caring for patients, people, um, their oxygen levels dropped super quickly in responding to those. Um, you are almost at a, you have to think very promptly. Not that we’ve not always had to do that, but it’s, we are, we have to think outside the box a little more so to speak than we have in the past.

Speaker 2 (04:59):

Um, we are there along with our team, with our nurses, with our physicians, um, lab x-ray, we are all there as a team to take care of our patients. And we are not only providing medical care, we’re providing encouragement and support to those patients because a lot of times during a quote unquote co COVID fog, so they’re not thinking clearly. So we’re, they’re motivating where they’re, um, cheering them on. And when the time comes a lot of times, we’re the last people that they get to speak with before being placed on a ventilator. And, um, so our role is pretty, pretty important in COVID-19 not only are we encouraging our patients, we’re also encouraging their families. We’re keeping them informed, um, and being their cheerleaders as well. Because a lot of times they’re not healthy themselves or, you know, with the COVID-19 restrictions, they’re not allowed to come into the hospital. So we’re there trying to find ways to allow families to communicate with their patients. Um, along with those things, we’re also, um, finding other ways to lift people’s spirits. We are trying to find their likes and interests in and to just, um, encourage them along the way with things that are not always medical, whether it be music or, um, just their likes and interests, we find out from families and whatever those things are, we try our best to get those for our patients and use those as uplifting.

Speaker 1 (06:59):

How do you, how do you keep the connection with the patients with the paraphernalia you’re wearing and you’re describing for us, um, this commonality you find, but how do you connect with these, these patients, particularly with the fog you describe

Speaker 2 (07:16):

A lot of times it’s hard. They’re, they’re not thinking clearly, of course we have all the PPE on, we have the mask, the gowns, the, the shields, the caps on our heads. So a lot of times we’re in recognizable and I can’t imagine how they feel, but we just try to become as personable as possible with them. We, um, you know, whether it be putting a picture of us at first, something like that, just so that we can, they can see that we are a person to not only, you know, we’re not just some monster in, uh, in some gear. Um, I hope that answers your question.

Speaker 1 (07:56):

Oh, it does. And, and, and frankly, you know, you and all the others that have been fighting COVID, you know, over the last 18 months, um, at the beginning, uh, everybody talked about the frontline workers, um, and caregivers as, as the heroes, but lately I’ve been hearing that in some ways, there may be some hero fatigue, uh, setting in, uh, can you speak to that? Um, what are you seeing in terms of your colleagues at the front line, as well as yourself in terms of this, uh, constant pressure, uh, from trying to serve the patients as you’ve been describing,

Speaker 2 (08:36):

He wrote fatigue is very real in is, um, there really are no words to describe it. You feel like you, you push and you push and you pushing, you work with the patients. And then a lot of times things don’t end up always end the way we want them to. And, um, I think for me personally, the hero fatigue that I have, I guess, is from just patients are not able to be with their families. And, um, I can’t imagine not being with my family if they were ill and sick and knowing that maybe it was their last days and not being able to be with them. To me, that is one of the hardest parts of the job is just not being able to maybe provide the needs for the entire family, as well as the patient. I know some coworkers have, um, really experienced the fatigue just in having patients. Do you have a disposition of things that they want done for their families and it’s weighed heavy on them because maybe they always can’t meet the needs that the patient has wanted. And so they’re very experiencing that fatigue of feeling almost like a failure, because they’re not able to do what the patients went, their wishes,

Speaker 1 (10:13):

You know, as well as all, all that you mentioned about what you have to cope with at home, uh, you didn’t bring up the 70 mile commute, uh, back and forth, uh, that you do every day when you come to work, uh, how do you stay motivated, uh, in these times considering your home life, the commute, and all the difficulties we just discussed in this COVID 19 environment?

Speaker 2 (10:39):

Well, my 70 mile commute is, um, almost a chance to unwind and prepare for my bay. Um, I have a great support system at home. My husband, my mother are always there cheering me on and, um, I have a great support system here at work. I work with one of the most amazing teams. They’re the greatest physicians, nurses, some of the best people you could ever ask to work for. And, um, they are my support. They’re in my encouragement. A lot of times they’ll say that I’m their encouragement, but that’s not true. They encourage me each and every day. And I feel like we push each other, we support each other. And without having that support at home and without having the support in your hospital, it could be very difficult, but I’m very blessed and fortunate to have some of the best people around me.

Speaker 1 (11:38):

Well, it sounds like it’s Southern Tennessee regional health system. You have a great team, a very supportive team. What’s the most unexpected part of your job.

Speaker 2 (11:48):

I would say the most unexpected part of my job. Um, it’s, I’ve loved the little things about my job, which are, um, they little things that make patients happy, whether it be an ice cream and milkshake from the local restaurant, um, a new pair of pajamas, a box of Kleenex. Those are my favorite things about my job. Um, and that helps me establish a relationship with my patients. I get to find out their interests and their wants, and those little things are unexpected about my job, but they’re my favorite part of my job. Another thing that I love that it’s unexpected is the relationships we establish, not only with our patients, but their families, and then the relationships we have with our coworkers, because, you know, going back to the hero fatigue, you don’t get to go home and talk about really how your day is because of all of the HIPAA violations and things like that. So it’s, it’s you establish a relationship with your team that you work with and that’s how we get through it all is, um, through each other. So the relationships is another unexpected part of my job that I never thought I would have, but it’s one of my favorite things.

Speaker 1 (13:22):

Uh, Jessica, before we go, I have to ask you about, uh, being awarded the mercy award. Uh, what was it like when you found out and what does the award mean to you?

Speaker 2 (13:34):

I was very surprised it has been the most humbling experience throughout my career. Um, I never thought that I would even be nominated for the award, much less Lindy award. Um, I do what I do because I love my job. I love to help people and I try to treat everyone just as if it was my family here and winning this award. Nothing could top it ever in my career. Um, it’s been a very special, very special time. I love to see people happy. I love to see people smile. And so for me, winning this award, um, it wasn’t about me. I feel like I’ve won this award for my team. I feel like my team has got to shine a little bit we’ve um, and they smile. My team has been smiling since the award ceremony. And, um, so that’s made me happy. It’s not, it’s not been about me. It’s been about my team here at Southern Tennessee, regional and plasty.

Speaker 1 (14:39):

Well, I know how much LifePoint health, uh, appreciates you and obviously, uh, the award reflects that. And we just thank you for your service and thank you so much for spending some time with us today. Just talking about the experiences you’re having, uh, at the hospital, uh, with this tough pandemic, uh, and your family life that, uh, uh, is so inspiring. Thanks a lot. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.


“Jessica was already a steady and welcome presence for patients and colleagues alike, but her positive impact took on even more significance and meaning after the pandemic began,” says David Dill, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of LifePoint Health. “The grace, kindness and fortitude she lives out within and beyond her hospital’s walls is needed more than ever. Jessica is a living embodiment of our mission of Making Communities Healthier and the legacy on which this company was founded.”

Jessica’s days begin with a 70-mile commute to the STRHS-Pulaski campus from her home, where she cares for her mother – a long-term cancer patient – and patiently works with her seven-year-old son, who has autism and only recently began speaking. During her shifts at the hospital as a respiratory therapist, she works tirelessly to comfort patients in both body and spirit.

Over the course of the pandemic, Jessica has been helping to change lives one act of mercy at a time. From providing small but impactful gifts for patients and being a comforting presence to those isolated from loved ones, to helping a patient regain the will to continue his fight against COVID-19 after the devastating news of his wife’s death from the virus, Jessica has been a calming beacon in the eye of the storm for so many. Beyond her hospital’s walls, stories of her kindness include a particularly poignant instance where she purchased clothing for two developmentally disabled and homeless brothers and helped them secure housing after they were discharged from the hospital.

“Wherever she is, Jessica’s strength, compassion and humility serve as a shining light and source of hope for those who cross her path,” says Jim Edmondson, CEO of STRHS-Pulaski. “She inspires me and lifts me up. We are so proud she is a part of our STRHS-Pulaski family, and we are thrilled that she has been honored with the 2021 LifePoint Health companywide Mercy Award.”