Role of respiratory therapists is a matter of life and breath

Without breath, there is no life. That’s why respiratory therapists are among the first clinicians at the bedside during emergency health situations.

You’ll find these lung and breathing experts in ERs, ICUs, critical care units, neonatal nurseries, asthma clinics, or transporting patients on medevac flights. Trained to help patients of all ages and conditions breathe better, respiratory therapists are a critical part of health care teams — yet many say that they discovered the role by accident.

Kiley Hodge, BS, RRT, 26, always knew she wanted to work in health care, but she couldn’t afford to attend medical school.

“I started small by taking science courses at Gwinnett Technical College,” she said. “I really didn’t know anything about respiratory therapy before I started, but it turned out to be the best education I ever got.”

Hodge liked the small classes, individual attention and the blend of theory with 800 hours of clinical training that she received in Gwinnett Tech’s associate degree respiratory care program.

“We had as much equipment in the lab as you’d find in a hospital, and hands-on training at clinical sites is how we learned to apply theory to practice,” she said.

Waiting tables to pay for her education gave Hodge the customer service skills she needed for the field, she said. Working in the respiratory care department at Emory University Hospital requires all her people and technical skills.

“My work and location changes from day to day,” she said.

Hodge may be called to any of the adult intensive care units, the ER or surgical and transplant floors to treat trauma, neuro, heart or postsurgical patients, as well as those with illnesses like cystic fibrosis or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

“We assess lung and breathing capacity, ventilate patients and manage airway flow and breathing equipment,” she said. “What I like about working at Emory is that this is a teaching hospital. I am always learning new technology and techniques and [am] involved in cutting-edge, evidence-based practice.”

Treating some of the sickest patients in the Southeast, the outcomes are not always positive, but Hodge loves being part of a staff that is constantly learning and growing.

“I see respiratory care headed toward being a bigger part of the medical team, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Hodge often participates in mini-rounds with physicians and nurses to assess breathing function or manage ventilation equipment.

“We have to run equations and figure out what will work for each patient,” she said.

Sometimes she serves on the rapid-response Medical Emergency Team that is called to the bedside of patients at risk for life-threatening events.

When she’s not dealing with an emergency, Hodge enjoys educating patients and their families about their diseases and treatments.

“Trying to help patients get better and stay out of the hospital is the most rewarding part of this job,” she said.

She knows that helping patients manage their diseases better reduces hospital re-admission rates.

These days, respiratory therapists are often working at the forefront of many of health care’s most important goals and challenges. Lung disease and pulmonary diagnostics are on the rise in an aging population.

The sleep therapy specialty is growing. There’s a new emphasis on disease management at home.

It’s essential for respiratory therapists to keep up with the latest advances in ventilators, oscillators and life-support equipment. Much of the new technology is less invasive and more comfortable for patients, allowing technicians to make safer, more-informed treatment decisions.

Being an active member of professional organizations helps Hodge stay abreast of innovations and issues in her field. She regularly attends national meetings of the American Association of Respiratory Care.

“Professors told us it was an important part of being a professional, but you don’t realize the benefits until you start working. I hear about the latest trends and research through organizational meetings and seminars,” she said.

Hodge may be young, but she’s committed to her profession for the long term. She’s a board member with the Georgia Society for Respiratory Care and also serves on the Composite State Board of Medical Examiners Respiratory Therapy Committee, which oversees state licensure.

“This is is my career and I want to learn all I can,” she said. “I’m excited to go to work every day.”