Why I Became a Respiratory Therapist

Hi. My name is John. I’m a respiratory therapist. What is your last name?

That’s the typical way I introduce myself to all my patients now. I started out introducing myself this way in our old emergency room, the one where curtains acted as walls. It prevented me from blurting out names for all to hear after the HIPAA law was passed back in 2002. After a while, however, I realized it prevented me from slaughtering last names.

My favorite part of the job

Of course, then I say why I’m here: “I’m here to give you a breathing treatment.” I understand you give yourself breathing treatments at home, but if you’re sick enough to be in the hospital, then you should be monitored. Besides, as I’ve learned from my own personal experience, you love the company of a respiratory therapist.

Sure, sometimes I’m very busy, and I have to quickly do a procedure and rush off to another patient. Sometimes that happens. But, for the most part, I am able to spend quality time with you. A breathing treatment, for example, takes up to ten minutes, so that gives us ample time to get to know one another.

Sometimes you start the conversation: “So, do you have any kids?” Sometimes I look around the room for conversation starters. I see a Bible, perhaps, and say:  “Oh, I see you read the Bible.

Or, perhaps you are watching the news. “So, what do you think about that?” I say, referring to whatever newsy topic is being discussed. Usually, a discussion ensues. This is my favorite part of the job: the one-on-one discussion, especially when it’s about God, or politics, or history.

Of course, an even better part of the job, is when my breathing treatment is done, and you take in a deep breath, and say, I can breathe much easier now! Thank you!

Why I became an RT

I grew up with asthma. In fact, I grew up with severe asthma. Back in the 1970s, I did not have access to rescue medicine. Sure, there were inhaled steroids, but doctors were afraid of side effects, so once your acute breathing episode was over, you were told to quit using them.

So, the result of this is I spent many hours in doctor’s offices, emergency rooms, and in hospital beds. I also spent many hours in my room struggling for air. Like many people with breathing disorders, many times I tried to tough it out way longer than I should have. I tried to treat it on my own, when I should have sought help, or at least said to mom, “I can’t breathe!

By the way, even though I have asthma and you have COPD, I kind of know what it’s like. Actually, I do know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to be short of breath. I know what it’s like to not know how to explain to people what it’s like. I know what it’s like to have to make changes in your life so you don’t get short of breath.

I know what it's like

I guess, in a way, I became a respiratory therapist because I wanted to pay it forward. I wanted to empathize with my patients. But, I have to be honest, I did not become a respiratory therapist because I wanted to take care of people with COPD. In fact, when I made the decision I did not even know what COPD was. I became a respiratory therapist because I wanted to take care of asthmatics, mainly asthmatics kids. I figured I could empathize with them.

A neat thing happened, though. By the time I graduated from respiratory therapy school, science had advanced. Researchers learned that inhaled steroids were both safe and effective for controlling asthma. So, this made it so most asthmatics no longer needed emergency rooms. As an RT, I rarely see asthmatics. This, I believe, is a good thing.

I do, however, see lots and lots of COPD patients. Surely it’s unfortunate that you need our services, but when you do we are here to help. We have some great medicine, and some great technologies for helping you breathe better. We can also educate and entertain you. Yes, as I wrote in the asthma community, we are the entertainers.

Having asthma helped me early on

I was hired as a respiratory therapist in 1997, and ended up admitted for 10 days for asthma. My nurse was Therasa. She was a great nurse.

A month later, after I was breathing easier and back at work, Theresa was the nurse of a COPD patient we’ll call Jane. Jane was having a severe COPD exacerbation.

I was called to the room by Theresa. I saw an elderly lady sitting on the edge of the bed, and she was gasping for air. Her lips were blue, and tears ran down her face and along her nasal cannula.

I started up a breathing treatment, and Jane said, “You guys just don’t know what it’s like to feel like this!” Her words were choppy, as she only got two words out per breath.

Theresa said, “OH, YES JOHN DOES!!"

The patient’s eyes shot up at me, “Really?” she said.

REALLY!” Theresa said. And Theresa went on to explain how bad my asthma was, and how bad my asthma was a month earlier. Once Jane was feeling better, we started talking. She found great solace knowing that I knew what it was like.

So here, while I thought I was going to have empathy for asthmatics - and I still do from time to time - the main crux of my job is taking care of COPD patients, and I definitely have empathy for you folks. So, now you know how I became an RT/ advocate for people with COPD.

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