Savannah Stuard is a respiratory therapist who works with covid-19 patients at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. She is used to people doing a double take when they see her providing bedside care, because Stuard was born without a left lower arm and hand.

“When they see me, they really kind of don’t believe it,” said Stuard, 27, who keeps her short arm double-gloved and secured with a band.

As a respiratory therapist, Stuard and her colleagues often do “bagging,” manually compressing a bag that inflates the lungs through a mask, which helps a patient breathe while awaiting a ventilator. Doing her job with one hand feels natural to her, but she knows it’s something unexpected for most patients.

“People see me in a different way than I see myself,” she said. “I see myself as normal and average.”

Jackie Odom, director of respiratory therapy at Ochsner, had no hesitation in hiring Stuard for respiratory therapy — which Odom said she used to believe “definitely requires two hands to do the job.”

“At first glance, you would think that she could not do all our tasks, but Savannah has done an amazing job at figuring out how to utilize her full arm … to make it work,” Odom said.

Odom added: “I watched her one day, and I was in awe.”

She said Stuard asks for help when she needs it, but that’s a rare occurrence. Stuard’s care for respiratory patients is equal to that of respiratory therapists with both arms, Odom said.

“In this industry, taking care of a patient is a team effort,” she said. “Savannah does not require any more assistance than any other therapist.”

Stuard, who grew up in the Houston area, moved to Louisiana about a year ago to work at Ochsner. As a kid, she did gymnastics and played volleyball when she attended Lone Star College.

Stuard was featured on the local news in a segment celebrating health-care workers, and her story touched New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees when he heard about her as part of the Real Heroes Project, in which professional athletes post thank-you messages to health-care workers on social media. Brees wrote Stuard’s name on the back of his jersey earlier this year and thanked her for her work in a video on the Saints’ Facebook page.

A special thank you from Drew Brees to Ochsner Health respiratory therapist Savannah Stuard! ❤️ Thank a hero of your own by making a "jersey" in their honor and share using #TheRealHeroes

Posted by New Orleans Saints on Thursday, May 7, 2020

“There were so many unique stories about the front line workers … stories of commitment and perseverance,” Brees told The Washington Post in an email. “I chose Savannah because of all she had overcome personally, and the sacrifices she was making daily to care for others.”

Some people in Stuard’s shoes might use a prosthetic arm. She prefers not to.

As a child, Stuard did gymnastics using a prosthetic — but when she was 13, she stopped using it because she felt she worked better without the artificial limb. She credits her parents with teaching her the power of adapting.

“They taught me to never give up and that I am just like everybody else, and that everyone is made different, and that’s why I look different,” Stuard said. “My parents helped me through almost every obstacle I faced as a child. They taught me to adapt to anything.”

Stuard said she always knew she wanted to work in the medical field — to help others through possibly the worst times in their lives. She originally wanted to be an ultrasound tech, but that was too difficult with one arm because Stuard couldn’t hold the transducer and press buttons at the same time.

She thought that respiratory therapy might be doable with one hand.

Stuard attended a respiratory therapy program at Lone Star College at Kingwood in Texas and graduated in 2018. There, she got a lot of practice and instruction from mentors and teachers — and family and friends helped her practice techniques at home. But facing a job after school was intimidating, she said.

“It really was hard for me to figure out how to adapt … multitasking and knowing that I might not have that help,” she explained.

Every respiratory therapist does procedures in his or her own way, and after some initial challenges, Stuard got her routine down. For example, in one procedure called the arterial blood gas test — which monitors lung and kidney function — the therapist draws blood from an artery instead of a vein.

Stuard at first struggled with finding the artery, typically in the patient’s wrist, with one hand while holding the syringe in the other like she’s seen other respiratory therapists do. To do the task with the same hand, she figured out a way to mark the artery on the skin with a pen so she knows where to insert the needle.

In her free time, Stuard, who married her husband, Zachary, last year, works with the NubAbility Athletics Foundation, which works to inspire and educate limb-different children and help them get into mainstream sports.

She teaches kids ages 6 to 18 volleyball skills at NubAbility camps and gives them this message: “No matter what you want to do, go for it.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that an ultrasound tech uses a transducer during an ultrasound procedure.

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