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‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’

By Elisabeth Altamirano-Smith/ Community Columnist

Favorite holiday decorations are different for everyone. Some decorate their homes in miniature Christmas villages while others have Frosty the Snowman themed decorations.

Bing Crosby’s classic, war-time lyrics famously sang, “Please have snow and mistletoe and presents by the tree.” This year, COVID-19 has affected all of us in many ways, which makes Christmas this year even more special because it makes us consider what is truly important. Since March, Kris Lowery of Jemison has been stationed in Georgia’s Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Lowery, age 29, is a technical sergeant who works as a registered respiratory therapist for the military. He has special CBRNE-CERFP training which made him a unique, invaluable resource to the military to combat and save lives when COVID-19 began. CBRNE-CERFP stands for Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, and Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package. Those trained in CBRNE-CERFP are prepared to assist with a quick emergency response that uses decontamination suits, gasmasks, rubber boots, rubber gloves and hardhats, when necessary. He is the only military cardiopulmonary technician in the state of Georgia. Like millions of others, Lowery has considered if it is “safe” to travel during the holidays. Although Lowery will not be coming home for Thanksgiving and sitting at his grandmother’s table for the family’s yearly tradition, his work experiences during 2020 has given him a resounding, clear message: celebrate and love family members while you still have them here.

Lowery enlisted in the National Guard in 2011. He initially trained as an aerospace medical technician which eventually led to his interest in becoming a registered respiratory therapist in 2019. Upon his new registration as a respiratory therapist and entering the workforce, COVID-19 happened. From the beginning of his work experience as a registered therapist, COVID-19 has shaped his job in ways he had only imagined.

“We were trained for a disaster in CERFP, so when we initially heard that the governor of Georgia had called us to set up an emergency portable hospital in Albany, Georgia it was exciting,” said Lowery. “We are trained to have a six hour response time and make sure it is ready to go.”

Lowery and others from his team were sent to live in Albany, Georgia, which was considered the highest percentage of COVID-19 per capita in the United States. For five months, Lowery was not able to leave his hotel room, or have anyone enter his hotel room (including housekeeping) while he was stationed there for risk of exposure. Lowery maintained the equipment, COVID patients and those in the step down unit at Phoebe Putney Hospital.

“Because of the nature of my job, I am the guy with the ventilator, so patients do not want to see me,” said Lowery. “I know it can seem scary to be put on a ventilator. I have seen many patients die along the way, but I have also seen many make a come back and get well.”

Even though the nation experienced a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment and uncertainty of how to combat the virus, Lowery said he and his team always felt in control from the training they had received prior to COVID.

“The hardest thing that we’ve dealt with is seeing so many people die,” Lowery said. “When you are intubating a patient, you have to explain to them beforehand that you are putting them to sleep. For those that I had to take off of the ventilator, that didn’t make it, that has been the hardest for me- knowing that was their last memory. We weren’t prepared for that.”

After June, the percentage of COVID digressed, and Lowery has since been working at mobile COVID test sites in Atlanta, COVID floors in the hospital and Warner Robins. In July, Lowery tested positive for the virus but recovered. Lowery said that most people that have the virus seem to recover unless they are morbidly obese, have high blood pressure or diabetes.

For Christmas this year, Lowery is looking forward to being home and with family again.

“Everything I do daily is something to do with COVID. It will be an escape to be with my family,” said Lowery. “I can’t wait to take a break and see them. It is a chance to get back to life like the way it was before all of this happened. If this year has taught me anything, it is to appreciate the family you still have.”

Kris Lowery is the son of Drew and Janet Lowery of Jemison.