Spending a lot more time at home, thanks to the pandemic, last week I found myself digging through a cardboard file box full of old miscellaneous paperwork. I was looking for a receipt for a roofing job we had done on the house several years earlier. Doug insisted that we had it done prior to 2010, I thought it was newer than that. Well, I found the receipt and Doug won the bet. Sure enough, the roof was reshingled in 2009, not 2012 as I had thought.

But I digress, this post has nothing to do with roof shingles. While sifting through that old file, I came across some of my Respiratory Therapy School records and my exam results for the RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist)credential. Why they were mixed in with a bunch of old house remodeling receipts, I don’t know, but finding them sure brought back a ton of memories. I didnt find the college transcripts from the very first RT School I attended back in 1976, but I did find the ones from an upgrade program I took in 1997. Kinda neat.

As recent as the mid 2000’s when I was still working full time in the field, most people had probably never even heard of a Respiratory Therapist, or what they did. Now, with Covid 19 and all the talk about ICUs and ventilators, Respiratory Therapists are suddenly in the spotlight and everyone’s heard of them. Like other frontline health workers during this crisis, some even consider them heros.

The fact is, RTs have been working behind the scenes helping to save lives for nearly 70 years. What you may not know, is that while most of us are trained to work in Critical Care Units units with ventilators and other life support equipment, not all RTs do. In addition to administering basic Respiratory Care services, such as Oxygen and aerosol treatments, ABG collection and Analysis, Adult, Pediatric and Neonatal Critical Care, Labor and Delivery, ER and Trauma room services, etc, there are a lot of sub-specialties within the field. Including, ECMO, Cardio Pulmonary Rehab, Pulmonary Functions Testing (PFTs), Hyperbaric Therapy, Critical Care Transport (flight and ground) and Patient assessment and Education, just to name the most common. But, its really personal preference, or up to the individual employer, as to what areas an RT might be assigned to or specializes in.

Most Respiratory Therapists work in hospitals, but many also work in outpatient settings, like Doctor’s offices, Home Healthcare Agencies, Sleep Labs, Outpatient Rehab centers, etc. Some work full time, some part time, some are on-call. There also lots of temporary 13 week assignment opportunities for those who like to travel and see the Country. Its a great way to see what its like to work in different hospitals.

Back in the early days of Respiratory Therapy (we’re talking the 1960’s and 70s), there were 2 ways a person could enter the field and work as an RT. You could either complete a 1 year private RT school program, which after graduation entitled you to sit for the NBRC’s CRT “Certified Respiratory Therapist/Technician” exam, or you could complete a 2 year program at a community College and be eligible to take the RRT exams. Unless you were
trained on the job and grandfathered into the field, most employers after 1975 required one of the these NBRC credentials. Job wise, the main difference between a CRT and RRT, is that RRTs usually made more money and were given more responsibily, though not always. In addition to NBRC credentials, beginning in 1983, more and more States were setting up Regulatory Respiratory Care Boards, setting minimum educational requirements and issuing mandatory Licenses to practice. Currently, both Bachelor and Masters Degree RT programs are available. Many employers require a Masters degree for their management positions.

My entry into the RT field, came about a little differently than most. It was more by circumstance than by choice. A lot of people just assume that since Ive lived with severe asthma my entire life that I have a knack for all things Respiratory. Well that’s partially correct, but it wasnt my first choice as a career. And while it may be easier for someone like me to relate to others suffering from this disease, the scope of care in Respiratory Therapy is much broader than just asthma care. Respiratory therapists treat people with all kinds of respiratory conditions, not just obstructive lung diseases like asthma or COPD.

Growing up, the thought of working in the medical field wasn’t really on my radar. It was a bad asthma exacerbation at age 19 that changed that. During this particular hospitalization a Social Worker paid me a visit. She was genuinely concerned about how severe my asthma was and about how my living situation might be impacting. It was thought that environmental factors from the types jobs I was doing at the time(ie, car washing, warehouse and factory work), might be triggering and/or or making my exacerbations worse. The idea was that if I could learn a professional trade, I could earn more money, improve my overall health and reduce my reliance on the public healthcare system.

Lucky for me, this was during a time (mid 1970s) when the Federal Government actually had money to invest in social programs that would improve people’s lives. Anyway, this Social Worker must have seen something promising in me, because she made me the following offer; Knowing that I was currently taking a few classes at the College of San Mateo and also working part time, she made a deal with me. If I completed those classes, and with no less than 3.5 grade average, that the Federally funded Vocational Rehabilitation program would pay my tuition for a either a Nursing School program or an RT program. (Silly me, I picked RT.)
Long story short, I kept my end of the bargain, and so did she. The program paid my tuition for a one year private RT School for the ghastly sum of $4800 (a fortune at the time), as well as a small stipend of $75 for me to live on , so that I wouldnt have to work while attending School. A year later I completed the RT program, graduated, got my CRTT credential and found a job with full health insurance benefits. In the Governments eyes, I was a success story! I felt pretty good about myself as well.

I went on to work at various hospitals and temporary agencies, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that I decided to get serious and pursue the coveted RRT credential. This however, meant that I would have to go back to School and finish my degree. The motivation to get my RRT status, was partly because I was tired of “just being a Resp Technician” or CRT, and partly because more and more Medical Institutions were requiring it. So basically, job security. Luckily, my employer at the time was offering tuition assistance, which made the decision to go back to School that much easier for me. I ended up choosing an RT upgrade program through a distance learning School called California College for Health Sciences. Based in Southern California, they were kind of the equivalent of today’s online College. Because I was working 12 hour shifts and had a very easy work load, I was able to do most of my studying while I was at work. I remember after studying each course, you would take a test and mail it (as in regular mail) back to them to be graded. When it came to the clinical classes, they actually sent an evaluator/instructor staff to my place of employment, which at that time was a long term rehab center for ventilator dependent patients. They would watch me to see if I was profiecent at doing certain procedures and then check me off. Because you could learn at your own pace, I ended up completing the entire 2-year program in less than 8 months. In October of that same year, I sat for, and passed both the written multiple choice and clinical simulations sections of the RRT exam, successfully earning my RRT credential. It took me 21 years to go from CRT to RRT, but I did it.

Over the decades, working in various areas of Respiratory Care to doing a 3-year stint in the home health care field, I pretty much did it all. But my diminishing lung function and frequent asthma exacerbations was beginning to take a toll on my work performance and attendance. I was spending more time in the hospital as a patient than as an employee. Finally in 2005 after working in the field for nearly 30 years and still fairly young at age 49, I decided to retire and apply for long-term disability benefits. Nine years later in 2014 when it became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to do the same kind of work again, I decided to retire my California RCP License as well giving up my right to practice Respiratory Therapy in the State of California. To this day however, I still retain my NBRC credentials.

Below are some of the documents I found in that old file box:

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4 thoughts on “Oh that’s right, I’m a Respiratory Therapist.

  1. I started as an OJT or Technician Assistant in 1975. Then went to school and graduated with an AAS in 1978. Your blog post brought back memories. I went on to become a RN and did that since 1994, and really wasn’t happy at all with it but the pay was much better so i kept at it. I’m retired now, but working as a RRT was the best job I’ve ever had. I still have all my old test scores, transcripts and diploma. I learned more about medicine and patient care in my 3 month OJT training program than I ever learned in the formal university setting.

  2. Were 2 weeks into these fires, and though most are contained now, the air quality is still pretty bad. I try to stay indoors as much as I can, but the smoke and the high pollen counts are definitely affecting my lungs. Had to increase my pred yesterday hoping that that will prevent my breathing from getting any worse. Thanks for checking in.

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