|Hiser and a marine patient|
during the Vietnam War
Whether treating newborns for breathing disorders, helping patients with asthma, or diagnosing sleep disorders, respiratory therapists help people breathe easier. Treating and diagnosing lung disease requires a strong reserve of scientific knowledge. Today, as president of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), respiratory therapist John D. Hiser is passionate about his role in getting people the care they need. When Hiser was in high school, though, he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. In fact, in 1966, he went to college intent on becoming an accountant. But a twist of fate landed Hiser in the Navy, and consequently launched a lifelong career of helping patients and saving lives.
Describe this field.
Respiratory care has an array of different specialties to suit individual interests and goals. For example, neonatal respiratory therapists (RTs) work in children’s hospitals and treat newborns for breathing disorders. Pulmonary RTs educate and treat patients with chronic lung diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis. Critical care RTs are drawn to the fast pace of the intensive care unit and work with the most technical equipment and severely ill patients.
RTs also work outside of hospitals. In the back of helicopters and ambulances, transport RTs work closely with nurses, physicians, and emergency medical technicians to stabilize patients until they reach a hospital. RTs who work in polysomnography—sleep medicine technology—must understand the 77 identified sleep disorders and usually work in sleep laboratories during the night shift when studies are conducted. Some RTs make home visits to provide services to patients with long-term illnesses like emphysema. These career paths, to name a few, are just some of the many available to RTs.
Depending on his or her area of expertise, an RT might diagnose lung disorders and recommend treatment methods; analyze breath, tissue, and blood specimens for oxygen levels; or monitor and maintain mechanical ventilation and artificial airway devices. All RTs in all specialties need a strong education and solid training in science and technology.
What background is needed?
An RT must have a strong background in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and medical terminology. All of these areas provide essential knowledge that is used on a daily basis when treating or diagnosing lung disease. Individuals are required to complete either a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree. Graduates from these programs are eligible to take two levels of national licensing exams. Passing the entry-level exam leads to a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential. Subsequently, passing an additional, advanced two-part exam leads to a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential.
- Hospital Corpsman; A.A.S., Respiratory Therapy; B.S., Allied Health Education; M.Ed., Vocational Education/Secondary Higher Education
- CRT; RRT; Respiratory Care Practitioner (RCP); Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
On the web:
- Registered nurse, physician, surgical technologist, physician assistant
How did you become an RT?
I didn’t really choose my career, it chose me. In high school, my focus was less on a future profession and more on whether or not I would be going to Vietnam. I went to college and planned to major in accounting, but I had to drop out due to financial issues. I was immediately drafted, joined the Navy instead of the Army, and was sent off to boot camp. Upon my return from boot camp, I decided to become a hospital corpsman—a cross between a nurse and a paramedic. In this role, I spent a year taking care of Vietnam returnees in the orthopedic ward of a Naval hospital. One day the head nurse told me she was transferring me to the inhalation therapy (i.e., respiratory therapy) unit. I told her that I didn’t think I could “put tubes down peoples throats,” but she believed I could and the next day I started my on-the-job training (i.e., respiratory therapy, pulmonary function testing, assisting anesthesiologists with surgeries, and acting as a recovery room nurse).
Once I was a fully trained senior corpsman, I was transferred to Vietnam where I spent a year on a destroyer escort responsible for picking up downed pilots in a rescue boat; served on the gun line (bombing targets); and spent a month serving on a spy ship. Once I was discharged, I came home to Fort Worth and went to Tarrant County Junior College (now Tarrant County College) to get my Associates in Applied Science (AAS) in Respiratory Care. I continued to pursue training and education in respiratory therapy; today I am the director of that same program and have taught at Tarrant County for 28 years.
Professionally, the Navy and the fact that someone else picked my career was the best thing that ever happened to me. I love what I do. And still, the most rewarding experiences I had with patients involved taking care of the marines and sailors returning from Vietnam (see photo). Their positive attitudes were amazing in the face of what they had endured.
—By Megan Sullivan