COVID-19 has caused many people to reevaluate the way they live and work. But does that mean professional goals have changed as well? Five AARC members share their stories.
Time for a quieter environment
James Rintoul, CRT, worked in a small critical access hospital when COVID-19 first came on the scene, dividing his time between respiratory clinical care and education. As is the case in many small facilities, he could be in the ED one minute and the maternity ward or ICU or even the outpatient area the next.
He taught ACLS and PALS to the staff, interfacility transport skills to local paramedics,
and respiratory skills to nursing students. He also handled orientation and competencies within the respiratory care department.
“The pandemic brought about considerable change and adjustment — no outpatients, no elective surgeries, even the COPD exacerbations and chest pains were hesitant to come through our doors,” he said. “Classes were all but closed down.”
Rintoul pivoted to help his hospital determine how it would operate in a pandemic environment. They altered their Bipap machines to use them as ventilators on pressure control, put filters on nebulizers for patients unable to use MDIs, and looked at various controlled environments for intubation and procedures for running codes.
“Everything and anything to keep everyone safe,” he said.
But as things began to normalize, he knew it was time to step back from the turmoil.
“As the adrenalin of the pandemic was waning, I found an opening in a pulmonary lab and now spend my days doing PFTs,” he said.
It’s quite a change, but he says he’s enjoying learning more about this aspect of the profession and the science behind the tests used to diagnose and monitor respiratory conditions.
Finding a different path
An associate clinical manager in respiratory care at the outset of the pandemic, Christopher Mahannah, MBA, RRT, RRT-NPS, was focused on moving up the career ladder in the profession, hoping to one day become a department director or vice president over respiratory therapy services.
When COVID-19 arrived, staffing shortages put that on hold, and he joined the ranks of thousands of other therapists across the country suddenly asked to work five, 12-14 hour days a week, along with being on call on the weekends, just to keep up with the deluge of patients.
But when he and his wife welcomed their baby girl into the world in November of 2020, work-life balance issues merged with the stresses brought about by the pandemic to make him reevaluate where he wanted to go with his career.
Fortunately, his organization offers several avenues for advancement, and his vice president encourages personal and professional growth. For him, transitioning into a quality and regulatory management role was the right call. In addition, the hours are flexible, and he can work from home when needed.
He still loves respiratory care, though, and has maintained one key goal he had before — to play a role on the AARC’s leadership team and continue his work with the Colorado Society.
“My new career path in quality and regulatory management is not one often taken by respiratory therapists, and I am proud to be able to represent our profession in a different aspect,” said Mahannah.
Meeting a new demand
Jennifer Blevin, RRT, RRT-ACCS, has always wanted to work as a patient educator, and the pandemic didn’t change that goal. In fact, she believes it may have made it easier to reach.
“Thanks to the pandemic, respiratory therapists have been thrust into the spotlight for the specialized care they offer,” she said. Because of their relationships with their patients and clinicians in other disciplines, she believes RTs are in a unique position to share their knowledge and skills. Furthermore, the fact that so many COVID-19 patients are dealing with long-COVID symptoms means there is now a whole new set of patients who need respiratory patient education.
Blevin is doing the work she needs to do to reach her goal. Right now, she’s finishing her bachelor’s degree while working with her health system to develop a pulmonary educator position that she believes will end up helping so many patients who need more information to deal with their conditions effectively.
Reinventing her “superpower”
There probably isn’t a health care worker out there today who hasn’t felt a level of fear about going to work every day during a pandemic. Yet, for Joelle Hochman, RRT, that fear was complicated by the rare blood disorder she lives with, along with a history of pulmonary embolism. So when RTs in the pulmonary rehabilitation program she was working in redeployed to work on the floors at the beginning of the pandemic, her doctors advised against it, and she suddenly found herself without a job.
“I had to reinvent myself and come up with new goals,” said Hochman. Given her love of patient education — something she believes is her “superpower” — she decided to form a private coaching practice.
After a lot of research and footwork, she received a variance from her state licensure board to work as a patient educator in private practice, as long as she agreed not to perform any hands-on care. So she opened her business, Pulmonary Health Coaching, in early 2021 and has loved it. However, she still needed something else to supplement her income while her business grew, and amazingly, she found just the right thing.
“I decided to look for a part-time job,” explained Hochman. “Almost immediately, I stumbled on a part-time position at my old hospital in the Lung Center, as a program director/patient navigator for severe COPD and severe ILD patients/providers,” she said. “I was shocked — it seemed to be a job made exactly for me.”
All the work is done on the computer and the phone, which means she can still help respiratory patients in need without putting her own health at risk.
The volunteer solution
A long-time veteran of the profession, Mary Ann Couture, MSc, BSRT, RRT, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, did what many RTs in her generation did once the pandemic got underway. About six months in, she retired and, in her case, moved from her home state of Connecticut to South Carolina.
But as a member of her former organization’s Community Emergency Response Team, she had a lot of knowledge about handling a nationwide emergency, and her role with the vaccine team in Connecticut offered insights into that aspect of COVID-19.
Indeed there were still things she could do without putting in the kind of hours that she knew her body couldn’t take anymore. But what?
Couture first thought about going back to work part-time but found that even with the shortage of RTs, facilities in her area only wanted full-time people, even if it meant hiring travelers.
“When vaccines became available, there was a call for RTs to volunteer to give injections,” she said, and she thought she might do that. But when providers realized the vaccine clinics were a source of revenue, most decided to hire staff and were no longer looking for volunteers.
So how could she continue to serve? For Couture, the idea was always to volunteer for health care-related organizations supporting groups like the Better Breathers Clubs during retirement. Now that those groups are reforming, she is again concentrating her efforts there.
“I did find support and inclusion with the volunteer agencies in my new location, where programs are finally opening back up,” she said. “So now I am enjoying my retired life again in a voluntary capacity.”
Lots of options
The two years RTs have spent dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic may have reconfirmed the commitment to patient care, or may have left some rethinking what they really want to do with their careers. But the good news for therapists who are considering a change is there are so many things you can do with a degree in respiratory care that something is bound to fit the bill.
As these AARC members illustrate, when one door closes, another is always nearby to open.