A Respiratory Therapist’s Kaleidoscope: Reflections on Sixteen Years as an RT (Part 1)

This was originally written in the summer of 2014, not long after returning to a job I had had previously.

It is 9 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. My feet ache from being in high-heels all day. My back hurts, reminding me that I am not completely healed from the February 2014 back injury that I sustained at work. Tomorrow is a bit of a homecoming. I’ve been here before. I fell right into the preparation routine, after being out of it for more than two years. I spent time after hours copying the PowerPoint handouts that we will need tomorrow, copying the other handouts that go along with the presentation that I will give, putting the props on the table just like I did more than two years ago when I worked for this Company. Tomorrow will be the first time in over two years since I last taught this class, and tonight’s prep work felt so natural that I kept asking myself it had truly been two years since I was here.

Earlier in the day, when I introduced myself to my students who came to learn how our Company does business, I told them that I had been a licensed Respiratory Therapist for 16 years. I did not know I was old enough to be or have done ANYTHING for that long. In some ways I still feel like I am in my early 20s (except for the lingering effects of the back injury). I stood there in my high heels, asking myself incredulously, “Has it really been that long?” And the answer is yes. It has been a kaleidoscopic journey, one that, for some reason, I feel compelled to share.

I rarely discuss my work with anyone, because when people ask about my occupation, I receive looks of confusion or I am assumed to be a Physical Therapist or a nurse. I am neither. I am a credentialed Respiratory Therapist, currently licensed in three states. Here is how my journey began.

An Unlikely Occupation

It must have been sometime in early 1996, the year I graduated high school. I attended a small boarding academy in central Ohio, and I suspect my guidance counselor was concerned about my future. I was an average student, but I was too distracted by boyfriends and didn’t think much about the future. My guidance counselor talked to me one day about my plans after high school. Most of the kids in my class had already mapped out their college or university plans. I don’t remember doing much college planning with my parents.

This may explain why my guidance counselor had this little talk with me – perhaps she feared that I would fall through the cracks and never get anywhere. She told me about a college in southwest Ohio, with programs in Nursing, Radiology Technology and Respiratory Therapy. “You have asthma,” she reasoned with me. “You could relate really well with the patients. It’s a two-year degree so you can start working fairly quickly.” Those weren’t her exact words, but I remembered almost mindlessly agreeing, “Okay, that sounds good.” That summer after graduation, I prepared myself for a new life as a college student, not sure at all what to expect. I remember being worried, because I had always seen myself as an artistic person and as I looked at the requirements for the Respiratory program, with its science and biology prerequisites, I began to think maybe this was not a good idea after all. Later that summer, I discovered that my best friend from high school was also going to this college, also in the Respiratory Therapy program. Somehow that put me at ease; she was much more outgoing than I, and her presence would help me make friends easier. My unlikely journey to college began that August in 1996.

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A Respiratory Therapist’s Kaleidoscope: Reflections on Sixteen Years as an RT (Part 2)

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.

Age With Grace (Or Kick It In The Face)

I’ve never been the type to worry about aging.  I marveled at friends who approached their milestone birthdays with fear and trembling.  To me, the adage held true: “you’re as old as you feel“.  I pretty much believed that, going through my days focusing on other issues, thinking that as long as I exercised and ate healthy I would be okay for a very long time.

My confidence partly came from comparing my current self with my 20-something self a decade ago.  I was overweight then, not so healthy, eating lots of junk even though I was a vegetarian.  My husband, who was my boyfriend back then, fondly reminisces of that time with me as our “traveling fat couple” years.  My knees ached a lot from eating too much sugar, my menstrual cramps were strong and painful at times, and my general health was not so great.  In 2006, while in my late 20s, the weight began to drop as I was finishing my bachelor’s degree and preparing for my wedding at the same time.  In January 2010, I jumped into the vegan world, which brought further improvements to my health.

Once I turned 35, though, I was confronted with the aging process. My belief “you’re as old as you feel” was unexpectedly challenged.

I was relatively sure that I wouldn’t have to deal with gray hair for quite some time. I never looked for them, and none came to my attention. My husband was the one who noticed my first gray hairs when I was 35, which is ironic because he is not the most observant guy when it comes to changes in my hair.

I also noticed my metabolism change … significantly. I’ve never been thin, but I’ve been pretty healthy since 2006. However, I’ve noticed that doing the same type and amount of exercise no longer has the same effect. I have a muffin top now; I’ve never had one of those. My arms are getting flabby. I’ve always had big hips and a very round butt, but I’ve always been much smaller above the waist. Once I turned 35, and ever since, I’ve noticed extra padding above the waist.

Perhaps the worst reminder of the aging process came last year, in February 2014, when I injured my back while at work. Up until this injury, I had considered myself to be a pretty strong girl, certainly not weak. I was used to carrying decent loads and politely declined help from men when they offered it. I was used to hauling heavier oxygen equipment in and out of my car and into patients’ homes when necessary. The back injury not only weakened me physically, but mentally as well. I began to see myself in a very different way.

Part of the reason for this is because the recovery took such a very long time. Even 15 months later, I am still not 100% recovered. Before the injury, I used to be able to bend over with legs straight (no bend in the knees), feet together, and put my palms mostly flat on the ground in front of my feet. Now I am lucky if I can get my fingertips to touch in front of my feet with slightly-bent knees. A week ago, I held a 10-pound baby for 20 minutes while standing, and my back ached the rest of the day. Not only that, but long workdays sitting in a chair causes aches. Long car trips (and I do lots of these for work), not exercising and eating crappy food will also exacerbate my injury. It has been like this off and on for the last 15 months, except it was much worse for the first six to ten months after the injury.

I thought I would have until my 60s before I needed to worry about gray hair, weakening muscles, lower metabolism, and menopause-induced weight-gain. Perhaps these “premature” reminders are here to jolt me out of abeyance. Maybe I’m just getting a sneak-peak into what could be in my journey ahead if I don’t take better care of myself. I thought I was doing okay, but maybe all of these indicators are a slap from reality – “No, you weren’t doing okay.”

Whatever the case, though I am often tempted to feel sorry for myself, I know that ultimately doing so will not help. It’s time to kick aging in the face and show it how strong I really am … even if I’m bluffing a little.

(C) 2014. Please do not use without permission.
(C) 2014. Please do not use without permission.

Springtime Sonata

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I returned home yesterday from traveling a few days in central Illinois, where the air temperature was in the lower- to mid-80s, and farmers were zooming around their dusty fields in their tractors, preparing the soil for planting. When I had left our little corner of Michigan on Wednesday morning, the trees had an abundance of shy, green buds waiting to pop open. Trillium dotted the landscape at a local county park amid a minimalist-green backdrop. Upon my arrival home, instead of shy, tentative buds, I was greeted by fully-foliaged trees, and a bush in our back yard that was so abundant with small, white blossoms that it looked like popcorn had popped all over it.

Spring is very much on my mind these days; not just meteorological spring, but also personal seasons of spring, where lessons are learned after the winter seasons of life. I recently read a journal entry from 3.11.15, written while working in southern Indiana. Spring fever was apparent as I wrote these words:

“Maybe it’s the weather, that glorious thaw beginning to relax the icy grip of winter. Perhaps it’s the extra sunlight in my retinas. It could be the recent victories, benchmarks of progress: [my husband] getting accepted into the PhD program, and [my husband] fighting the battle to graduate in May – and against some serious opposition – he won! Also, a general rapport with [my husband] that has sustained itself over many months – we bicker at times, but end of up humoring our way out of a deceleration into madness.

“Maybe it’s the way the roads stretch out before me, long and fluid, leading to possibilities. It could be the hike through [the local county park] on Sunday, trudging through more than two feet of old snow, followed by [a long-time friend], whose face took on a ruddy, healthy look, contrasting nicely against the backdrop of the white, brown, and gray winter landscape.

“It’s possible that returning to and working on my blog, in addition to visiting and writing in my journal after a short dry spell, has something to do with it…

“…or maybe it’s because my back hasn’t been hurting lately – I’m back to that elusive place where it almost feels like it was never injured last year, and that’s a beautiful victory – for now.

“One last possibility is that it’s my new morning devotional time, reading Jo Ann Davidson’s ‘Glimpses of Our God’, seeing her passion illuminating the fabric of her words. Plus I’m really pausing to pray to God in the morning, in addition to the conversations that I normally have with Him throughout the day.

“Or it could be a combination of all these things. “I’m waking up to a joy that I haven’t had for a long time, and the messed-up pessimist in me is struggling to believe that I’m even in this current place.

“I am, as they say, ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop”, as if I don’t deserve this current rest area along the way. I’m enjoying the scenery, the sunshine on my winter-weary soul, the progress and laughter with my husband, being outdoors (with longtime friends, no less!), the writing, the diminution of my almost-constant back pain, the joy of rediscovering God. So why can’t I just sit here, soak it all in? Thank God for all of it? Because I know this can’t remain this way. And already I’m preparing myself for that giant shoe to drop, the way that small tree crashed suddenly onto the hood of my Toyota Corolla last July while driving on I-80 in Illinois. I’m waiting for it so I’m not surprised by the disappointment. Yes, it’s cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m still learning to pause and just enjoy this moment. I couldn’t appreciate all of these ‘sparkles’ if I didn’t have to dig through so much to dirt to get here:

  • “The cold, brittle winter to appreciate the slide into warm, majestic spring.
  • Working through four years of supporting my husband’s studies to see him progress to the next important step in his life, and mine.
  • Navigating some challenging communication in order to understand one another and get past the snags of conflict.
  • The illness that I had three weeks ago that dropped me back to ‘sedentary’ status – now I appreciate health even more than I thought I could.
  • The back injury in February 2014 that plagued me for most of this last year, which also caused me to take exercise and dependence on God more seriously.”

These are the thoughts I wrote on that day in March. With the wisdom of hindsight, I know the growing process is worth it. For now, I’ll bookmark this moment of clarity and revisit it when the next shoe decides to drop.

Peeking my head out from under the snow drift…

I’ll never forget what a friend said to me a few years back when I was crying to her about my sadness over leaving a job I loved. She asked me what my least favorite season was, and without hesitation I answered that it was winter. She looked at me and said, “You are going through a winter season in your life. Hang in there, because all winters eventually come to an end.”

It would take two years before that particular “winter” season ended, but she was right. I  never forgot her words. I remember them each time I find myself dipping into a “season” that leaves me feeling the brittle, skeletal coldness that only a winter can bring.

At the very end of 2013 I decided to give blogging a try. Actually, I started this blog four months before that winter solstice of my soul faded into a glorious springtime. My contributions here have been anemic at best. As I’m sitting here in early March, feeling the damp cold in my feet, after being buried in seven inches of Kentucky snow, I wonder when the real spring will arrive, and I look forward to the green and warmth that signals the end of another long, hard winter.

Likewise, here at Taciturn Alchemy, I have decided to take the Blogging101 courses offered by WordPress, finally resolving to pick this thing up off the ground after laying in abeyance for over six months. My hope is to finally peek my head out from under the snow drift of my life that has kept me afraid of failing at something I was hoping I’d love. I’m ready to move from the winter of my blogging into spring. I’m still learning that winter can’t last forever…

Twilight of the Ovaries and the Dawning of the Disesteemed Barren Womb

Recently my husband and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. It fell in the middle of the week, and since he was in the middle of his second summer session at school, I felt no need to take that day off from work. It passed by with very little ceremony. We bought some cupcakes from a college town store that offered vegan options, which were disappointingly gross at best, and then ventured over to a Thai restaurant that mildly satisfied our appetite for Asian cuisine.

I was reminded of some of our conversations before we married, conversations that centered around our belief that we should not be irresponsible and bring children into this messed up world. More than eight years ago, just a few years after 9.11.01, and with wars taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed a good decision. Later, we talked about how we did not feel called to be parents, that it was indeed a calling. Also, my husband felt that he did not have a good role model in his own father to lean upon in formulating his own paternal identity, should the occasion arise. Overall, we decided, the decision would be moderated by God’s will. If He wanted us to be parents, He would have to make that very clear.

Five years passed without any significant status change. We began packing our little 650 square foot apartment in southern Indiana and moved to Michigan for my husband to attend seminary in the spring of 2011. Now it seemed that my life was starting to take on a shape in the otherwise-formless void of seeking my life meaning; I was putting my husband through school and bringing him through a very necessary phase of his career. He determined to obtain his Master of Divinity degree, followed by a PhD. We would be in this for quite a while, I realized, but I was okay with this because I had a job of my own that I really enjoyed. But the following year, the spring of 2012, I was derailed by a desire that came with such vicissitude I could not even talk to my husband about it for quite a while.

One of my friends, in her very late 30s, was pregnant with her first child. Suddenly I was confronted with my own desire to become a mother. Even now I do not understand why this happened. I remember sometime that summer feeling the desire so intensely that I excitedly purchased a pregnancy test at the drug store because my period was a week late. That excitement quickly faded with the negative indicator glowing mockingly on the stick, and a few short days later, my body confirmed what the stick professed. I realized that it was probably just as well, because I had no idea how I could be a full-time breadwinner and mother while my husband continued his studies.

However, since that time, I have not shaken the desire, and two more years have passed since the desire began. My husband teases me about my loudly ticking biological clock. I, in turn, remind him that it’s perfectly normal for a woman to think about having children. I even remind him that several of his seminarian colleagues are managing scholastic life with family life. I just turned 36; I have crossed a threshold in my mind that tells me that time is quickly ticking away. I warn my husband that I am entering a twilight of the ovaries, but it’s a nebulous twilight; women do not get an expiration date on their ovaries, a two-minute warning of sorts to know just how much time is left. We get medical guesses, perhaps an idea from the menopause histories from the women in our family, but nothing certain. We don’t even get evidence that we are capable of carrying a child until we actually start trying. So can we start trying? I ask him jokingly, promising him that the trying part will be a lot of fun. I even wink for extra motivation.

But he is not ready. Not ready to be a dad, not ready for the extraordinary life change that it brings, not ready to surrender what precious time we have together (“It’s hard enough having quality time with you as it is,” he says. “Having kids would make it even more difficult.”). He has no pattern on which to base his knowledge of fatherhood. He grew up with a father who was abusive, emotionally stunted, incapable of proper parenting. I remind him that many guys grew up with bad dads, no role models, and by the way, no history is too hard for God to overcome. Of course he knows this. But he doesn’t feel called. Wants to get through school. Wants to keep our time together.

I completely understand this. I, too, still oscillate around the questions of whether I am truly ready to be a mom. I am impatient and unsteady sometimes. I work too much and enjoy too little. It seems that now truly is not the best time for us to start our parenting lives together. But my ovaries are quickly slipping away, riding off into a sunset that I will never see. I am fearful of missing that chance.

Obviously the fear of missing the chance is a different struggle from those couples who are actively trying and cannot conceive, but it is no less a struggle. So when I was part of a conversation yesterday about bringing socially shunned people into homes and how it could negatively impact one’s children, I was not prepared when, I was told, “Well, you don’t understand because you don’t have kids.”

Translation: Your opinion has no merit because you don’t meet the criteria to be in this conversation.

While it may not seem like it, I have forgiven this woman who made this ill-timed and insensitive comment. I believe she is entitled to her opinion, however insensitive it may be. I will likely talk to her about this because she has made a similar comment to another childless couple a few weeks ago, and I believe she needs to understand that this comment is an unnecessary argument to support her opinions.

We are living in an age where political correctness has scared many people into silence, afraid of speaking against the sociopolitical flavor-of-the day. I am glad this woman felt comfortable stating her opinion. I would hope that my labeling it “insensitive” does not give the opposite impression. But she does not understand the weight of her statement. Perhaps I am wrong and being too sensitive, but making a statement like that sends the message that only women who are mothers have a right to comment on anything to do with children. I am smart enough to keep my mouth tightly closed and do not express opinions about how to disciple or raise children. But over the years, my childlessness has caused women to say some pretty ridiculous things to me (and perhaps others) about my somehow-incomplete adulthood because of my barren womb (by choice, for now).

For example, several years ago, a well-meaning friend who is my age must have assumed I was younger because she felt the need to say “You’ll mature when you have kids.” I politely reminded her that we were the same age. The same friend, and countless others, have stated that motherhood makes you “less selfish” (miraculously, this appears to be an automatic process). I counter this argument by saying that there are plenty of selfish parents in the world. From my Christian perspective, only God can help a person’s selfishness, not children. If children removed one’s selfishness, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus. And then yesterday, to be told that I couldn’t understand a position because I didn’t have children, well, I began to wonder if motherhood was now a new women’s rights movement, a sort of opposition to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Those of us who postpone parenthood because of the very difficult struggle with whether to become parents are no less human because we have not taken that brave step. We are not less human because we struggle with whether we are truly called to parenthood. I admire all of my mother-friends and family members who have braved this complex and challenging adventure. I do not criticize them or patronize them for their decision. I imagine that many of them faced the same struggle before they plunged themselves into the world of parenthood. I believe they do have a different perspective of the world because of it, a perspective I value and admire because I do not have it.

The woman who made the comment about not understanding because I do not have children did not seem to value this struggle; even worse, she did not seem to consider that some people don’t have children because they can’t. Perhaps there is an opportunity to educate, in a non-condescending way, a person who simply did not think about what she was saying.

And perhaps by writing this, I am reminding myself to be careful about how I think about someone who says something contrary to my beliefs or opinions. We do not know the roads that have been traveled, often difficult roads that bring a person to their current position. My hope is that this is not a new type of women’s movement (silencing the childless minority and flaunting motherhood as the only valuable life experience). My belief is that a barren womb does not disqualify a woman from being a valuable, informed and yes, authentic woman.

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