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What is a respiratory therapist?

Dec 8, 2020

There’s a member of your medical team you may be hearing more and more about these days. They are respiratory therapists, and they are specially trained healthcare professionals who help treat and restore function for people with airway and breathing problems.

Yes, this includes helping COVID-19 patients, which is why respiratory therapists may be on people’s radar more so these days.  Respiratory therapists are on the front lines, in isolation rooms, assisting COVID-19 patients with breathing or weaning off a ventilator.

Valerie Bierman, Respiratory Therapist

But there’s more to this team than helping COVID patients. They can help with any cardiopulmonary related conditions, such as COPD, asthma or bronchitis. They may work with neurological patients, such as those with Guillain-Barre syndrome or ALS. Trauma, such as a car wreck, or following surgery, may require a respiratory therapist. Even babies born prematurely need the care of a respiratory therapist.

“We see patients from their first breath of life to their last breath,” says Candler Hospital Respiratory Therapist Valerie Bierman. “Right now, yes, we are taking care of COVID patients, but we still have our critically ill patients that come in with pneumonia or following surgery that we try to wean off ventilators or work hard to keep them off a ventilator.”

At St. Joseph’s/Candler, respiratory therapists are on the job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Working in a hospital setting, our team can be found helping patients across the hospital from ICU to the special care nursery to the emergency room.

Just some of the functions they perform are:

  • Intubation by inserting a tube through your mouth down to your windpipe
  • Monitor your breathing and other vital signs if on a ventilator
  • Take your blood to check your oxygen and acid/base levels
  • Administer medications through inhalers
  • Test how well your lungs work, including how deeply you can breathe

“You can't have life without breathing,” Bierman says. “It’s our job to make sure everybody can breathe as best as possible.”

The job also requires continuous education. Respiratory therapists do earn a Bachelor’s degree, but it’s more than just four years of studying and clinicals. The field requires constant learning, Bierman says, whether that’s training on new equipment or studying to get recertified.

Respiratory therapy also is a growing field, but the need for therapists remains high, Bierman says. She acknowledges that it may seem like a scary time, being in a pandemic, but she trusts the policies and procedures in place to keep herself and her co-workers safe while doing everything they can to help all patients get better.

“I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and I love what I do,” Bierman says. “We have a great team here. We all work well together with the nurses and doctors. Just like a family. ”

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