Woman Born With One Hand Is an Inspirational Respiratory Therapist in COVID-19 Fight

August 18, 2020 Updated: August 18, 2020

Two years out of medical school, respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard is on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 in New Orleans, operating ventilator equipment or manually pumping air into patients’ lungs.

It’s challenging work under any circumstances, involving 12-hour shifts, head-to-toe protective equipment, and constant vigilance to avoid catching or spreading the disease. It’s even more complicated for Stuard, who was born without a left forearm.

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Respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard, who was born without a left forearm, demonstrates her technique administering oxygen with an Ambu bag for treating COVID-19 patients inside a simulation lab at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

“I don’t have two hands, only the one,” she said, discussing the challenges of working while maintaining a sterile environment. “So I have to sit there and methodically think it out, what to touch next, what to put on my hand to make it as sterile as possible.”

Stuard, who works at Ochsner Medical Center, keeps the tip of her left arm covered with a glove secured by tape.

To prepare for close contact with patients, she practices procedures such as “bagging”—manually pumping air into a patient’s lungs—in a simulation room on a mannequin.

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Respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard, who was born without a left forearm, demonstrates her techniques for treating COVID-19 patients at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Stuard says she enjoys her work and likes to inspire others along the way.

“It’s so rewarding,” she said. “Most patients see me, and they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ They ask me questions, and I answer them. It’s amazing.”

Stuard volunteers at foundations where she mentors young people with limb differences to show them how she learned to do things like tie her shoes, participate in gymnastics and other sports, and learn karate.

She has also shared her experiences with patients she encounters who have lost limbs.

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Respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard, who was born without a left forearm, poses inside a simulation lab at Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

“They’ll say, ‘I lost my leg in a car accident, and you just give me so much hope,’” Stuard said. “That’s what I love to hear, and that’s what I strive (for)—to help people to be better, because they see someone that has less and doing more, and it makes them feel like they can do more.”

Stuard’s story caught the attention of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has undertaken charitable efforts to help front-line medical workers and provide health care in underserved communities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Brees noted her efforts as part of his work with The Real Heroes Project, a collaboration involving 15 men’s and women’s sports leagues. Athletes who participate share personal thank-you messages to health care workers on social media.

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Respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard, who was born without a left forearm, demonstrates her chest-compression technique for treating COVID-19 patients at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans on July 28, 2020. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

“He wrote my name on the back of his jersey and said, ‘This is for you, the real hero,’ and he was just thanking me for what I was doing,” Stuard said.

“To get recognized like that, it was really great and exciting.”