DALLAS — When the coronavirus pandemic began, everyone told Breanna Pierce what she should do.
Her doctors suggested and her family urged: Take a break from working as a respiratory therapist. The risks were too high.
Because she has cystic fibrosis, her health already was at risk. With COVID-19, the consequences could be grave.
During the few weeks it took Pierce, 26, to make her decision, she stopped working with patients at their bedside and took on other tasks in her department at Texas Health Dallas.
"I finally just decided I can't do this anymore," she said. "Whenever you see all the people you're working with, and they're insanely busy, we're short-staffed, and they're just running 90 to nothing I really just wanted to do my part."
The pandemic has been difficult for health care workers who have spent more than nine months battling the deadly virus, only to see hospitalizations soar in recent weeks.
The exhaustion, the mental toll and the chance of infection are especially perilous for Pierce because of her chronic, progressive condition, which causes frequent lung infections. Even catching a cold or the flu can send her to the hospital.
She has been able to stabilize her health through exercise, but her lung function is only about 40%.
"If I were to contract COVID, my lungs aren't that great," said Pierce, who lives in Anna. "It could very well kill me."
Pierce's co-workers also worried about her at the beginning of the pandemic, said fellow respiratory therapist Alex Sassine.
"It was scary for us, too," she said. "We were like, 'We don't want to lose you. We want you here forever.' And she was like, 'I'm going to do this. I didn't get in this field to quit.' And she's been trucking ever since."
To keep herself safe, Pierce generally doesn't work with COVID-19 patients. But she sometimes finds out after helping people that they later tested positive for the virus. In recent weeks, she has interacted with about six coronavirus patients, she said.
Pierce begins every day with three breathing treatments before she puts on a vest for therapy that helps break up the mucus that accumulates in her lungs.
A lifetime of avoiding germs has helped protect her from COVID-19 at the hospital. Now, after receiving the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine that was offered to health care workers, she should have some added protection. But even the decision to be immunized wasn't easy because of her health problems and a history of allergies.
Pierce's mother, Alice Curtis, said her daughter was determined to work in health care after spending a lot of time in the hospital as a child.
"She's seen how everyone really cared and was really concerned, and it made her want to give back," she said.
Pierce set out to become a respiratory therapist like the ones who had helped her through the years, and her experience with cystic fibrosis helps her soothe patients who are struggling for air.
"When they feel like they can't breathe, and she's there, she says, 'You know, I understand,' and she calms them down — like she used to have to be calmed down, because she couldn't breathe," Curtis said.
She and Pierce's husband had wanted her to take medical leave when the pandemic broke out, but Pierce is hard-headed — "because that's the way I raised her," Curtis said.
"She's doing what she loves to do. She loves to help people. She's always been that kind of person," she said. "I'm proud of her for that, and I love her for that. I think God has his arms wrapped around her, and he's keeping her safe so far."