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The breath of life: Respiratory therapists keep patients breathing

The Daily Courier/Jo.L.Keener
Respiratory therapist Rafael Merle simulates how a mask is applied with the help of Crystal Hubbard, employee at Yavapai Regional Medical Center, Jan 3. The ventilators that therapists use can perform breathing functions if a patient requires the help.

The Daily Courier/Jo.L.Keener Respiratory therapist Rafael Merle simulates how a mask is applied with the help of Crystal Hubbard, employee at Yavapai Regional Medical Center, Jan 3. The ventilators that therapists use can perform breathing functions if a patient requires the help.

All hospital employees work to keep patients alive and breathing, but for respiratory therapists, the focus is on the breathing.

"Respiratory therapy is an allied health field, or 'para-professional,' where we work under the direction of a physician and provide patient care under a doctor's orders," said Elizabeth Page, respiratory therapist with Yavapai Regional Medical Center. "We help patients breathe, in circumstances from wounds to life support and more."

Page said that a respiratory therapist's job can take them to nearly every department of the hospital, and no two days are the same.

"We might go from the maternity ward to the emergency room; it's always a new set of challenges," Page said. "With surgery patients, we teach them deep breathing techniques. When you take the medicine and lie in bed, you breathe more shallowly than normally. If you don't breathe deeply, you could develop pneumonia. That used to be one of the most common complications of surgery."

Beyond training patients to breathe properly, the role of respiratory therapists as educators has expanded recently at YRMC. They now offer inpatient education as well as seminars open to the public on a variety of breathing-related medical conditions.

"We cover everything from child asthma to adult COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)," Page said. "Our main focus is currently on smoking cessation, because smoking results in so many chronic breathing-related illnesses."

Rafael Merle, the YRMC director of respiratory therapy, said there are two levels of respiratory care training - a one-year program to become a respiratory care technician, and an advanced certification to be a respiratory therapist.

"Beyond that, you can get certifications in respiratory therapy specializations, like a certified pulmonary technician," Merle said. "Another specialty is a neo-natal pediatric specialist, where you're present at high-risk C-sections and deliveries, and you take care of the breathing of the babies."

Respiratory therapists, like many of the allied health field specialties, are highly in demand now, with jobs available at the hospital level as well as in-home care, sleep laboratories and other venues.

"It's an exciting field with a growing role - one that's beginning to take over some of the roles traditionally held by nurses," Merle said. "More doctors are consulting respiratory therapists in their care for patients with breathing complications. We're also being included with many rapid response teams and code blue committees, the people who respond first to emergencies."

Page said she became interested in respiratory therapy because she knew there would always be work in the field, "because people will always need to breathe." She said many schools now require respiratory therapists to go through a four-year bachelor's degree program.

"We have about 24 respiratory therapists at the (YRMC West) campus, and roughly 10 at the east campus," Merle said. "During the day the need multiplies, as we're needed to deal with emergencies that can tie up the therapists for a long time."

Page said that there have been significant strides in respiratory technology during her time in the field that have made the job easier and more efficient.

"Now we have hand-held monitors displaying patient conditions at all times, and a lot more automation with computerized charting and instantaneous, real-time data sharing between respiratory therapists and doctors," Page said.

"The ventilator technology has also improved leaps and bounds, and much of that is based on NASA research. The same technology they use to help people breathe in airless space, we use to help patients down here. It's kind of amazing, really."

For more information on respiratory therapy, see the American Association for Respiratory Care website at www.aarc.org.

Contact the reporter at dmeurer@prescottaz.com