How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Photo of a Respiratory Therapist

Henry Bailey has been in the respiratory therapy field since 2008. He has worked at both level-1 and level-3 trauma hospitals all over the Seattle-Tacoma area. Henry first wanted to become an X-ray technician, but while shadowing medical professionals, he met a respiratory therapist and learned about the profession.

Seeing the impact that respiratory therapists can have on their patients really inspired Henry, and he decided to become a respiratory therapist.

What is a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists (RTs) are state licensed healthcare practitioners that help doctors diagnose and treat lung disorders. We are often the only staff members that know how to use a breathing machine (ventilator). We measure lung function and advise patients on how to manage their pulmonary diseases such as COPD and asthma. Other than the pulmonologists, RTs are basically the lung honchos in the hospital.

What kind of training is required to become a respiratory therapist?

Prerequisites are pretty universal for anything in the medical field: chemistry, anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, English, and algebra. When accepted into a respiratory program, it is two years of intensive classes, labs, and clinical rotations. It takes about 2.5-4 years to become an RT. Upon graduation, you can sit for the state board exam to become a certified RT. To be become a registered RT, you will need to take a more extensive two-part exam. Registered RTs generally make 2-5 dollars more per hour than certified RTs.

Why did you decide to become a respiratory therapist?

I initially wanted to become an X-ray tech, but during the pre-application job shadow, I found that I possessed more of the skill sets that an RT has. The RT I followed was sociable, a good teacher, and a respected member of the medical team. She really seemed to make a difference in people’s lives. This inspired me. Before this job shadow, I didn’t know such a job existed.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

The most common misconception is that we are a type of technician that carries out respiratory duties that the nurse is unable or unwilling to complete. In reality, we are often trusted by the doctor to assess the situation, report our findings, and (depending on the doctor/ hospital) are often given lots of autonomy on determining the course of treatment for our patients.

What is a typical day like for you?

I start by getting the patient report from the therapist who worked the last shift, and carrying out patient rounds. Patient rounds consist of administering doctor prescribed treatments, ventilator checks and adjustments, and patient assessment. This can be interrupted by responding to emergencies, such as having to resuscitate patients, putting patients on breathing machines, and transporting them. I may have to drop everything and provide airway support to the labor and delivery department for a compromised newborn. There are days when I never stop moving, but there are also days when we have plenty of downtime. I work six 12-hour nights in a row. This sounds rough, but it’s worth it to get eight days off in a row!

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

The adrenaline rush of saving lives, feeling like you are making a difference. Twelve-hour work days make for more days off!

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

Unfortunately, a lot of hospitals are going through financial difficulties. This often results in cutting staff and necessary equipment and medications that ultimately affect our quality of care.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a respiratory therapist?

I get an awful lot of questions regarding inhaler medications from patients that I find myself doing reading about in my spare time. If I could go back, I would have spent more time studying the take-home medications used by patients.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

Anatomy and physiology was really vital. I draw from this every day, of course. Medical terminology as well.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as a respiratory therapist?

Confidence in your abilities! A lot of times, you are the only person in proximity who knows how to run a breathing machine, knows the side effects of a medication, can draw an arterial blood sample. Sometimes it is all you. Confidence in the face of chaos makes all the difference. I was once called on to intubate a nonbreathing newborn, having never done it before on a live baby. I saved the baby and didn’t freak out until I got home.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone's success as a respiratory therapist?

Laziness. Respiratory therapy is a field where you can be as good as you want to be or just get by doing the minimum required. Either way, you get paid the same. It’s the RTs who do their best, stay professional, and go the extra mile that makes our profession what it is. It’s the lazy, unmotivated ones that make a hospital think that they don’t really need that many RTs.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a respiratory therapist?

Prepare to work hard. This is a very fulfilling job if you are good at what you do. Sometimes you are put in the position of saving a life. Mistakes and unpreparedness can be the difference between life and death. Yes, you can kill people. Sometimes you do everything right and they still die. With that said, I think it’s the best job in the hospital. You get to move around, make friends in every department, and basically get be your own boss. This kind of freedom requires responsibility.

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