In August 1996 I became a college student at a medical arts college in southwest Ohio, and for the next year I took general courses before I was officially accepted into the Respiratory Therapy program in 1997. Each week we attended classes as well as twice-weekly “clinicals”, which were rotations at various local hospitals to gain real-life experience under the tutelage of Respiratory Therapist preceptors. Our clinical time was spent performing breathing treatments, breathing exercises, chest percussion treatments (to help loosen mucus and clear it from the airways), and later, as we advanced in the program, we learned about mechanical ventilation. Whenever you hear someone saying “They’re on life support”, Respiratory Therapists are usually the ones who are managing the “life support” (aka ventilator).
Once we began our Clinical rotations with mechanical ventilators, the severity of illnesses that we encountered definitely escalated. I came into contact with patients and their families who relied heavily on the work that Respiratory Therapists do, and I believe that is when I began to understand the importance of my new occupation. I also began to realize that RTs do not serve one age demographic, a point that was brought close to home one day as I cared for a young man who was my age. He was on a ventilator, and we were utilizing modes of therapy that were not typical, because he was not responding to conventional therapy. I no longer remember what was wrong with him, but I was quite saddened when he passed away, and especially when I learned that his parents had previously lost another son.
In 1998 I was permitted to obtain a limited license to practice Respiratory Care as a student. I began working at the area’s Level 1 Trauma Center, and although they gave me mostly breathing treatments to do during my shifts, I still had opportunities to spend time with my shift managers in the Emergency Room seeing some incredible situations. I will never forget seeing a woman who was badly injured in a car crash, to the point where they had to split her chest open because her aorta was torn and she literally bled completely into her abdominal cavity. As the other medical staff tried hard to resuscitate her, my supervisor and I performed artificial breathing through a tube which was inserted into her trachea (windpipe), using a balloon-like Ambu-bag that we squeezed intermittently to push air into her lungs. Because her chest was split open, I could literally see her left lung expanding as we ventilated her. Obviously I felt very sorry for her and did not want her to suffer just so I could see a real-life lung in action. But this wouldn’t be the last time I had encountered horrible situations. Perhaps this is one of the things that people don’t understand about Respiratory Therapists: we are often on the “front lines” of emergency situations in the hospital setting.
Graduation came in 1999, and the last requirement of my program involved spending five weeks at a hospital to complete a Clinical Practicum. My Respiratory Therapy program had a relationship with Florida Hospital in Orlando, and I was one of two students selected to go there for the practicum. Again, because of the location and the demographic there, I had the opportunity to experience situations that I had not seen or experienced previously. After my five weeks in Florida, I returned home to Ohio and a short while later, I sat for my first exam to became a Respiratory Care Practitioner, a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT). Later in December, I sat again for another exam and passed, becoming a Registered Respiratory Therapist. By this point, I had secured a full-time job as an RT in the Critical Care Department of the Level 1 Trauma Center where I had worked as a student.
The sheltered student life was over.