“Why Did You Become a Respiratory Therapist?”

James Wood, RRT

Ever get the question, “Why did you become a Respiratory Therapist?” I know I have a few times throughout my respiratory career, and yet I always hesitate with my response. I was never quite sure how to answer. I knew it wasn’t because I loved working weekends, taking a night shift, or missing holidays with my family. But on one ordinary Thursday, the answer came to me. I was working in a long-term ventilator unit at a local skilled nursing facility, and the reason I chose this career became quite clear; I can make a difference in the lives of my patients.

On this particular Thursday, I was assigned as the therapist for “Joe,” an elderly man who came to my facility with end-stage pancreatic cancer. Joe was a pleasantly confused, depressed gentleman admitted on Assist Control after many failed weaning attempts in both the acute care and long-term acute care setting. The pulmonologist sent Joe to our facility to live out the rest of his days—which he’d predicted would be limited. Immediately on Joe’s admission, the respiratory department worked collaboratively with nursing and other members of the patient care team to develop a plan of care. The respiratory therapists worked diligently to wean Joe from Assist Control to an aerosol trach collar. This was not a smooth process, and we had quite a few bumps along the way. However, after a few weeks, we were making steady progress.

During the day shift, when I was working with Joe, he was progressing nicely with the weaning process and had the strength to participate in physical, occupational and speech therapies. However, we still had communication barriers. He was still too weak to write—and mouthing words was not his strong suit. Sensing Joe’s frustration, I thought that maybe a speaking valve could help him. Once I explained the procedure, I placed the valve and asked Joe to say “hello.” After a little hesitation, I heard a soft, raspy “hello” from his mouth. His face immediately lit up like a child on Christmas morning. I told him that his wife was going to be surprised to hear his voice when she arrived to visit later that day. As Joe wiped a tear from his eye, he looked at me and said, “Thanks, I haven’t heard my voice in eight weeks.” Joe has his voice back.

At this very moment, I realized why 14 years earlier I chose to become a Respiratory Therapist. In 10 short minutes, I improved the quality of life for Joe. The days following, Joe became more interested in his therapy sessions. This man, who initially had been depressed and had begged his wife to sign the terminal wean paperwork, now wanted to go home to mow the lawn. He rediscovered his joy in living.

After a week of speaking valve and capping trials, Joe was successfully decannulated, and did not require any supplemental oxygen. Three weeks later, Joe was discharged home. He was walking independently and able to complete all of his ADLs. A few months after his discharge, we received a letter from Joe’s wife. Joe had passed away at home, but his wife wanted to thank us for giving him the opportunity to mow his lawn one last time.


James Wood has been with Genesis Rehab Services since 2011 where he first served as Program Manager in a long-term ventilator unit. In 2012, James was promoted to the Manager of Clinical Services. In his current role, he oversees the clinical practice of over 600 respiratory therapists, and ensures these individuals deliver care that is consistent with state and federal regulations.

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