The aerator for my aquarium went out again! This is the fourth time I’ve had to replace it in the last 10 months. Replacing an aeration system is an excruciating process for me, because there are so many options to choose from. But it adds oxygen and circulates the aquarium’s water (and my fish won’t survive without one), so early one morning I made my way to the local pet store to make my purchase. I arrived before the store had opened for business; rather than wait in the parking lot, I decided to visit my friend Tonya who works as a respiratory therapist at the hospital across the street.

Tonya got a chuckle out of my aerator dilemma. She said that, like her, I also am on a mission to save lives, albeit the lives of my fish. I asked Tonya to tell me more about her role as respiratory therapist, and she recounted an eventful shift she had the day before in which she said she “witnessed life’s cycle” and experienced the thrill of being able to save a life and the frustration of not being able to save another.

Tonya’s 12-hour workday started at 7 a.m. with a change-of-shift meeting to discuss patients’ requirements for the day — which patients would need adjustments to their oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation, diagnostic tests or teaching. But her rounds would have to wait as right after the meeting, a “code blue” was called in the ED. Tonya, a member of the code team, rushed to the ED and proceeded to intubate and ventilate the patient to keep the airway open. Unfortunately, the team’s efforts to resuscitate the patient were unsuccessful. The grieving family members expressed their gratitude to Tonya for trying to save their loved one. Tonya said it was difficult to hold back her tears.

After this emotional moment, Tonya headed off to see her other patients. As she entered the room of the first patient on her list, her pager went off. She was being summoned to the delivery of a premature infant, who was being born at just 30 weeks. Tonya administered oxygen to the baby and provided positive pressure to open up her tiny lungs. The baby began breathing and was transferred to the NICU, where Tonya had set up noninvasive ventilation to support the baby’s breathing. Tonya felt relieved that her knowledge and skills were put to good use in averting a potentially catastrophic situation for the baby and family.

Tonya continued to carry out her duties throughout the rest of the shift. She taught a number of patients with COPD about their inhaled medications and educated some on smoking-cessation options. She took an arterial blood gas and consulted with a home care respiratory therapist on setting up home oxygen for a patient who was about to be discharged. She also monitored patients in the ICU who were on mechanical ventilators; assessed patients who required oxygen, as well as those with artificial airways, such as tracheostomy tubes; and educated patients about their care. It was a busy shift, filled with routine activities, ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies.

At the end of her shift, Tonya went back to her department to give reports on patients to the incoming team. Then she went home to rest up for the next day and another unpredictable 12-hour shift.

Tonya said not every respiratory therapist has a shift like this. Respiratory therapists work in diverse settings ranging from home and community care to diagnostic clinics to ORs. Although most of them are clinicians, others are educators and researchers. But regardless of their area of practice, respiratory therapists have completed rigorous training programs under stringent national standards in order to be prepared for everything, including saving lives.

Tonya said witnessing life’s cycle is one of the profound things that respiratory therapists can experience in the course of a day’s work. Whether they work in acute care, a wellness setting or diagnostic testing facilities, she said, respiratory therapists are “dedicated to improving quality of life through better breathing.”

On that note, she reminded me to hurry and buy an aeration device for my aquarium to help my fish breathe properly. Then she was off again, back to work to do the same for her patients.