PULSE: Respiratory therapists help maintain breath of life

By Laura Raines, Pulse editor

When a “code” (emergency situation) is called in a hospital, sometimes it’s a matter of life and breath. That’s when respiratory therapists — who possess the skills and tools to help patients breathe — step in.

With that in mind, Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville offers a two-year associate degree in respiratory care. It’s a challenging program, but it has to be, said Bob DeLorme, program director for respiratory care.

“Our students spend a lot of time in the lab learning critical competency skills. If they fail one competency, they aren’t allowed to continue with the program,” DeLorme said. “Our students have to know everything, because on any given day they may be called to any area of the hospital, and they never know what they’ll need to do.”

DeLorme, who has taught in the field for 25 years, first learned about respiratory therapy through his involvement with Explorer Scouting, a branch of the Boy Scouts of America.

“Our post let us rotate through various fields to see how they worked,” he said. “I knew I wanted to work in medicine and when I started researching health care fields in college, respiratory care seemed to be a good fit.”

DeLorme had already trained as an emergency medical technician; so the adrenalin rush of being called to patients’ bedsides and doing hands-on treatment was appealing. He specialized in neonatal care and flew in helicopters doing medical transport.

“To be good in this field, you first have to want to be in a helping field, and [you have to] like to interact with patients,” DeLorme said. “You need to like to tinker with machinery and equipment because so many of our patients are on life-support systems.

“You have to have dedication and flexibility. You’ll be flexing daily, because routines change in a heartbeat in hospitals, and you’ll need to go where you’re needed.”

Respiratory therapists are respected members of medical teams and they make a difference in people’s lives every day, DeLorme said.

Gwinnett Technical College accepts 20 students into the respiratory care program every spring quarter. Students must have passed nine college-course prerequisites — including physics, chemistry and three biology courses — with at least a 2.5 grade point average.

Students in the program attend classes, labs and go to clinical sites for hands-on experience five days a week for six to eight hours a day. Students study anatomy and physiology; pharmacology; the theory of respiratory care; pulmonary disease; critical care respiratory care; mechanical ventilation equipment and airway care; pediatric and neonatal respiratory care; pulmonary function testing and rehabilitation; and home care practice.

“Our lab is one of the best-equipped in the nation, with more than 15 to 20 mechanical ventilators, and our students go to a variety of clinical sites including hospitals and doctor’s offices,” DeLorme said. “When they graduate they are ready to work.”

It takes five quarters to complete the program.

To become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT), graduates must sit for a national examination. Many individuals also take two strenuous national exams to become registered respiratory therapists (RRT), who have wider employment opportunities.

Respiratory therapists may choose a specialty, such as neonatal care, critical care, sleep medicine or pulmonary function testing. They work in hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, home health settings or with medical transport teams. Starting salaries for Gwinnett Tech graduates range from the high $30,000s to the low $40,000s.

With the recession hurting hospitals, jobs aren’t as plentiful as they were two years ago, but DeLorme expects the demand to return. “The baby boomers are aging and will require more respiratory services. Also, a lot of therapists are nearing retirement age.”

— This article is a reprint from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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