From intensive care units to cardiopulmonary diagnostic labs to general hospital floors, you'll find respiratory therapists helping patients having trouble with their breathing. These patients include premature infants with underdeveloped lungs in the neonatal ICU, young patients recovering from COVID-19 or older adults with lung disease in pulmonary rehabilitation.
Meet a few of the therapists who help their patients take a deep breath.
When Jayden Crimmins' younger sister was born prematurely at 26 weeks, he knew he wanted to work with children with medical needs when he grew up. At 17, he took an entry-level job as a pediatric respite caregiver to gain experience working with ill children. Eventually, he pursued his career dream of becoming a pediatric and neonatal respiratory therapist through the Respiratory Care Track offered by the University of Minnesota Rochester and Mayo Clinic.
Crimmins says the most challenging aspect of being a respiratory therapist at Mayo Clinic is also his favorite — the specialized patient populations.
"Having so many specialty ICUs allows me to work with some of the most unique and rare cases from all over the world," he says. "I'm constantly learning new approaches as I work with other health care professionals to provide our patients the best care and give them hope to overcome their illnesses. Since Mayo is a teaching facility, I can also pass along these best practices and knowledge to the respiratory therapy students."
Like Crimmins, Allison Timm was drawn to respiratory therapy by a family member's experience. When her grandfather, who had congestive heart failure, was rushed to the Emergency Department during an episode, Timm saw a "lady place a big mask" on her grandfather, which eased his breathing.
"Later, I learned the 'lady' was a respiratory therapist, and the 'big mask' was a CPAP. After investigating the profession, I knew that's where I was meant to be," she says.
After she received a master's in respiratory therapy, Timm attended the annual RT Challenge, a competition that attracts respiratory therapy students from across the Midwest and introduces them to Mayo Clinic. "I fell in love with the hospital and staff," she says. "The opportunity to work at the No.1 hospital and learn from the best of the best couldn't be passed up."
She particularly appreciates that respiratory therapists at Mayo are seen as the ventilation experts and can freely suggest different tactics to care for patients. "At Mayo, we're considered an essential part of the patient care team," she says.
It was an allied health fair at his university that introduced Patrick Koehler to respiratory therapy. "I was intrigued, took the plunge and couldn't have made a better choice," he says.
After graduating, Koehler worked briefly in Virginia, but his Midwestern roots drew him to Mayo Clinic, along with its reputation as a world-class teaching institution.
Koehler says the most challenging aspect of his job is dealing with the almost-daily end-of-life scenarios. Those situations increased during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic when respiratory therapists were playing a crucial role in managing ventilators and other advanced airway devices.
As part of his work, Koehler serves on the adult respiratory transport team, which includes ground and fixed-wing transportation.
Following high school, Sam Anthony joined the Army and spent five years as a combat medic. After treating combat injuries during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, he treated and cared for local Iraqis.
"My trajectory toward health care was locked in," he says. After his service and while working as a vascular access technician, Anthony saw respiratory therapists in action and decided to make respiratory therapy his career. He studied at the Mayo School of Health Sciences and joined the staff at Mayo Clinic after graduation.
"The opportunities, challenges, leadership, scope of practice and autonomy here are unparalleled," he says. As a respiratory therapist, Anthony says his greatest challenge is balancing patient care and patient education. As a supervisor, it's balancing time with staff and administrative duties, as well as helping new staff learn their craft.
"My favorite part of being a respiratory therapist is giving high-quality care and making my patients laugh or smile," he says.
When she enrolled in the Respiratory Care Program at the University of Minnesota Rochester, little did Laura Buringa know that by the time she graduated in 2020, it would be in the midst of a pandemic. A pandemic that played particular havoc with patients' lungs and cardiopulmonary systems. "Yes, I graduated into the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic," Buringa says. "But I knew I was graduating into a vital field."
Three years later, Buringa, like Koehler, is part of the adult transport team. "These patients can have tracheostomies and require mechanical ventilation or noninvasive ventilation. Our role is to ensure their safety and manage their respiratory status as they travel from point A to point B," she says.
"Respiratory therapists are so much more than 'vent gurus,'" Buringa says. "We support patients of all ages with different disease processes requiring a variety of therapies. The cardiopulmonary system is vital, and we respiratory therapists are vital in supporting this system."
"If you need a respiratory therapist, you're probably not having a great day," says Melinda Dallavalle. "We're often at the head of the bed in emergency situations, we're always in ICUs, we're there among the general patient population to provide respiratory therapies to keep them out of the ICU, and we're there when every medical option has been tried, and it's time to turn off the ventilator and remove the breathing tube."
Despite these challenges, Dallavalle says respiratory therapy is her calling. Part of that calling is patient education, particularly for adults with tracheostomies and their families. She even developed a new procedure to effectively educate patients on managing their new tracheostomy before they go home. Dallavalle also enjoys educating nurses in the Department of Nursing's pulmonary management orientation class.
"The Respiratory Therapy department has been so supportive of my passion for tracheostomy education," she says. "It reflects on Mayo Clinic's values of continuous learning and always putting the needs of the patient first."
Tags: Staff Stories