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VA respiratory therapist finds hope in New Orleans

Respiratory therapist Eduardo Cardenas and other healthcare professionals wearing masks and working with COVID-19 patients.
VA respiratory therapist Eduardo Cardenas (lower center) with his VA family while on a month-long volunteer assignment to help COVID-19 patients in New Orleans.

It was late March and the grip of COVID-19 had frozen the nation. Businesses closed, residents hunkered down, and the world stopped. But for the second time in a year, Eduardo Cardenas was running toward the danger.

“I am not the kind of person to sit to wait until I see what is going to happen next,” Cardenas said. “If I need to do something, I am always ready.” 

The Salt Lake City VA respiratory therapist deployed to Puerto Rico in January after a series of powerful earthquake swarms tore the island apart. The swath of devastation caused more than $3 billion in damages and left over 8,000 homeless.

But at least in Puerto Rico Cardenas could see what he was up against. His latest VA deployment, in April, to New Orleans, pitted Cardenas against an unseen enemy.

There, amid one of the nation’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, Cardenas would come to know fear, isolation, sadness, and death.

Expected to last two weeks, the deployment stole Cardenas from his family for twice as long. But he volunteered to be there. Because above all things, he wanted to help. 

Long, busy days awaited him. On the worst of these, he said, two patients died. 

While working in an intensive care unit (ICU), the alarm sounded. Immediately Cardenas and a coworker rushed in and began CPR. Within moments, another alarm rang out.

In a matter of minutes both, patients were dead.

“We tried very hard to perform CPR, but there are times that circumstances that you never expected can happen,” Cardenas said. “For people like me that work in the healthcare industry, it can be normal to have patients die, but this situation made it a little harder.”

But in a pandemic – patients – not feelings – come first. And Cardenas dealt with the loss by focusing on the good memories he made with other patients.

While in ICU, Cardenas was taking care of a Veteran who was intubated, prone, and very sick. His condition was such that Cardenas didn’t think the Veteran would survive.

Cardenas did his best to treat the Veteran and within two weeks, the patient had recovered.

Before the patient left, Cardenas I told the man that he was glad to help and that it was his pleasure to take care of him. He then thanked the Veteran for his service.

To his surprise, the Veteran gazed up at Cardenas and replied, “Thank you for your service.”

“That feeling was very strong for me and made me feel very proud of what I was doing,” Cardenas recalled.
Besides bonding with patients, Cardenas’s VA “family” was there to support him.

“People here are very special,” he said of his coworkers. “I felt appreciated which gave me more energy and satisfaction to keep going.”

Cardenas returned home in late April. There was no parade. No fanfare. No hero’s welcome.

But he didn’t do it for recognition. He did it for them.

“I am not a Veteran, but I feel respectful and honored to serve those who served us,” Cardenas said. “This is my opportunity to show my respect to people that served our country.”

Despite the hardships he endured, Cardenas has no regrets. He advised others thinking about deploying to do so.

“Don’t just think about it, do it,” he said. “The feelings that you keep in your heart by helping Veterans and families are priceless.”

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