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Respiratory Therapist Reflects on Communication, Education, and Simulation

This is an interview with Dani Wall, a respiratory therapist in the pulmonary department at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. 

Nicki Murff: What made you choose a career in respiratory care?

Dani Wall: I knew I wanted to be in the medical field, but I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse. That specific career never appealed to me, but I always wanted to help people. A family friend was a respiratory therapist, and so I learned about the career path through her. My freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, I talked to the director of the respiratory program, and it just sounded really interesting. I went for it, and I never looked back!

NM: What is your degree in and what is your work background?

DW: I have an associate degree in respiratory therapy and a Bachelor of Science, both from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, and I am a registered respiratory therapist. I worked in home health for two years before transitioning to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where I am now.

NM: How does your experience working as a respiratory therapist in home health compare and contrast with the work you’re doing now?

DW: Doing home care first helped me to be able to communicate with patients better. When you’re setting up equipment in the home, you have to teach the patient how to use it on their own and explain it in clear terms. And for elderly patients a breathing machine can be intimidating! So you have to learn to explain things well to patients.

During the interview process in my current job, when they found out about my experience in home care, they thought I would be better for the pulmonary side of respiratory care, which is more diagnostic, because that’s more hands-on with the patients. I like it, I like being able to talk to the patients. So the home care compares in that sense, but it’s definitely different work.

NM: Did you ever encounter simulation scenarios while you were in school?

DW: We worked with life-size lung models that would hook up to the ventilators. Our instructors would run scenarios where they would unhook a circuit or create a blockage, and we had to determine why the ventilator was setting off its alarm or how to use suction to fix the blockage. That was helpful because in the hospital that happens all the time – the nurses will need us to find out why a ventilator is beeping. So that was a lot of critical thinking that they helped us prepare for in the lab with those machines.

We weren’t lucky enough to have any manikins when we were in school, but while we were there the school built a new nursing building with a sim lab. When I was a senior, my classmates and I were asked to help teach the junior RNs trach [tracheostomy] care techniques in the sim lab. They had these manikins where you could change the heart rate and simulate different respiratory rates – it was really lifelike! It makes you think critically, when the professors can change settings and you have to react to it. It prepares you if something like that were to happen in real life.

NM: Were there any simulations that you didn’t get to do that you would have found helpful?

DW: A Pulmonary Function Test (PFT). It’s expensive equipment, but it’s such an interesting test. We got to watch it being done, but you don’t get to see how interesting it is just by watching someone else do it.

NM: What is one of the most important lessons your instructors taught you?

DW: How you talk to patients. When you’re talking to a patient or talking to a patient’s family about what’s going on, they’re not going to have a clue what you’re saying if you use medical terminology.

You want to tell them what’s going on and what you’re doing in a way that they understand, and also be doing what you’re supposed to be doing correctly.

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One thing you always have to do is introduce yourself to patients, let them know what department you’re working for, whether you’re a nurse, a respiratory therapist, what you’re doing, what you’re there to do, and what it’s going to be like. That’s something our instructors made sure we knew: how to present yourself.

NM: Do you have any advice for respiratory therapy students?

DW: Be confident in yourself and be relaxed. Don’t stress and second-guess yourself, because that is the easiest way to make mistakes. You will always have someone with you; as a student you’re never going to be by yourself. Trust that you will never be put in a situation where you’re not comfortable and you’re alone, because that would jeopardize the care of the patient, so that would never happen.

Ask any question, there are no stupid questions. Don’t be afraid to learn new things or give your input. Go to any procedure you can, because the more you know, the better therapist you’re going to be.

October 21-27 is Respiratory Care Week. For more information, see the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) site. Nicki Murff is Marketing Coordinator I at Pocket Nurse. 

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