NEW CASTLE — Throughout her 28 year career, Tonia Gaiter says she's intubated countless patients through her work as a nurse anesthetist.
But in the fall of 2020, Gaiter found herself being intubated as she battled COVID-19. As her condition worsened, she was taken to IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital. Due to low oxygen levels, she needed to be on a ventilator.
“It was very shocking. I remember thinking wow, I can’t believe I am on a ventilator. You know I’ve put so many other patients on ventilators and now I’m on one," Gaiter said. "I knew there was no way around it."
During that time, she wasn't sedated. Gaiter says she wanted to be awake and was able to communicate with her family through a dry erase board.
"When you have a tube going down your lung ... I can't really communicate," Gaiter said. "It was such a relief to really be able to communicate. I felt like I had so many things that I needed to say."
After five days on the ventilator, Gaiter was taken off and able to breathe on her own again.
“I remember my first breath forever. It was just like I was at the beach," she said. "I didn’t know what it would be like to remove it, you know? I’ve removed who knows how many with all these years, how many people I’ve taken off … but I just couldn’t figure out what it would be like for me being awake."
After five months of rehab, Gaiter returned to her job. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was nervous to go into a COVID patient's room for fear of getting sick. When she was the patient, she saw the same response from her caregivers.
She says her approach to patient care is different now that's been through the experience of being on a ventilator.
"I have a new level of compassion for that patient who's laying there," she said. "I used to be so rushed, just wanting to go in and get them intubated and come back out and do my charting, so I definitely handle it differently now. I take my time and I build a quick and good repoire with the patient. I let them know ... I have been through this myself and we're going to get you through this."
Gaiter says now she doesn't have the fear of taking care of COVID patients and wants others to know they can survive after having COVID, too.