When Sarah Smith was looking for inspiration on a future career path, she didn’t have to search very far. As a high school junior, Sarah spent a night shift shadowing her mother, Sharon, in her job as a Certified Respiratory Therapist at Lompoc Valley Medical Center. That was all it took.
Just a few short years later, Sarah has studied for and obtained her California Registered Respiratory Therapist license, earning her two-year degree in Health Science and Respiratory Therapy from Independence University. Both mother and daughter are now Respiratory Care Practitioners working together at LVMC. “I did not want to be an RT and copycat my mom,” Sarah admitted. “I did want to be in the medical field because I do have a passion for helping people and seeing them heal and improve.” During the 12-hours of shadowing her mother, Sarah said there was never a dull moment.
“You’re very involved with your patients, assessing and being a part of the care plan,” Sarah recalled. “You can be there to make changes. The hands-on – I love that. You are physically breathing for the patient who cannot breathe or manage on their own.”
After she did the shift, Sarah wrote an essay about the experience. Her story was published in a book called “The Fabric of Society.” In the publication from 2015, 50 high school seniors from around the country wrote reflections on school, work and their communities.
“I was in awe as I witnessed the masters at work; people passed out, not breathing, being revived by the skills an effort of my mother and her team of coworkers,” Sarah wrote. “I watched in amazement during a situation where my mother squeezed a bag cupped over her patient’s mouth, the patient’s lungs were once again full of air, a life-saving ingredient that they had been unable to gain on their own.”
In the essay, Sarah called her mother and coworkers “superheroes” who saved lives and it gave her chills. “This is meaningful, and I want to be a part of it,” she concluded. As she studied for her RCP license, Sarah worked at LVMC as an EKG Technician, which does not require the same level of schooling.
A Respiratory Care Practitioner performs critical lifesaving and life support procedures prescribed by physicians that directly affect the body’s major organs. Patients may be suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, chronic asthma or can be premature infants whose lungs have not fully developed. RCPs also perform diagnostic tests, such as evaluating lung capacity and make judgments on behalf of patients on life support.
Sharon, Sarah’s mother, has been a Certified Respiratory Therapist at LVMC for 23 years and has been in the field for 30 years. She even met her husband when he was a patient.
Initially, Sharon planned to follow her own mother into a teaching career. She was attending Northern Arizona University on a scholarship, and to supplement her income became a Certified Nursing Assistant. At that time, the hospital in Arizona told her about a new program to become a respiratory therapy assistant, which was an eight-week course that didn’t require a license at that time.
“I fell in love with it, so much so that I quit my teaching degree and started going to school to get my credentials,” Sharon recalled. “I just fell in love with the field.” Sharon said she is attracted to the adrenaline of knowing she’s part of a team, working to help save someone who might not be breathing or is having trouble breathing.
“In 30 years, it has been such a fulfilling, satisfying job, because you are helping people breathe, you’re helping them live. With respiratory, it never gets boring. In the hospital, you’re not assigned to just one floor. There’s boring stuff that we have to do, but there’s high adrenalin stuff that’s exciting. It’s so well rounded. “
She says she sometimes worries that she may make the wrong decision. “But when there’s that trauma that comes in or someone comes in and they could die before your eyes, and you’re responsible for giving them breath, that is so stinking satisfying,” she explained. Even after 30 years on the job, Sharon said she’s excited to come to work.
“When you have a patient tell you they feel so much better after a breathing treatment, it’s great,” she said. “They say, ‘I can breathe now.’ I feel so thankful I get to be part of something so important. These people are in a traumatic situation, or in the births, to get to be part of that intimate part of their lives. Even when someone dies, I feel honored that I get to be in such an intimate part of their lives that hardly anyone gets to see. I feel honored.”
She laughs that her enthusiasm makes her the “poster child for respiratory.” “I go home at night feeling like I really helped people,” she added. “I was put in this job for a reason. That’s what I believe.” Sarah is not certain she will stay in the job as long as her mother, but can perhaps use it as a steppingstone to a different career in the medical field.
“You get to see so much in the hospital on any shift,” Sarah says. “You can collaborate with nurses and doctors to care for your patients, ranging from babies to geriatrics. This is a great hospital to get a baseline. It’s a very good learning environment. It’s very fulfilling.”