Respiratory therapists are one of healthcare’s vital but least recognized professions. However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new attention to this specialty which focuses on a wide range of breathing disorders and diseases.
October 25 – 31 is Respiratory Care Week 2020, and the Byrdine F. Lewis College of Nursing and Health Professions Department of Respiratory Therapy celebrates this week by recognizing some of Georgia State’s RTs who have made a difference in the field. Meet three women leading respiratory care units in major hospitals around Atlanta, Stephanie Johnson, Lauranne Scates and Kristen Weaver.
New Jersey native Stephanie Y. Johnson is the director of respiratory care services/pulmonary function and neurodiagnostic for WellStar Cobb Hospital in Austell, Ga. She moved to Georgia 12 years ago and graduated from the Georgia State respiratory therapy program bachelor’s degree through the A.S. to B.S. bridge program in 2013. She earned an MHA from Louisiana State University-Shreveport in 2018 and will begin a Ph.D. program in organizational leadership beginning in 2021.
“I love music from almost all genres,” Johnson said. She learned the new craft of painting as a form of self-therapy and most recently became a step aerobics instructor with Xtreme Hip Hop and is excited about teaching classes soon.
Lauranne Scates is the director of respiratory therapy, neurophysiology and sleep services at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. She graduated with a B.S. in respiratory therapy (RT) in 2008 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in respiratory care online at Georgia State. She enjoys physical outdoor activities such as hiking, biking and climbing with her three children.
Kristen Weaver is the respiratory care manager at Northside Hospital Cherokee in Canton, Georgia. She graduated with a B.S. in respiratory therapy (RT) in May 2008 after deciding to change careers. Weaver previously earned a degree in education from Georgia State in 1993 and taught school in Alaska for several years before transitioning to respiratory therapy.
What initially drew you to a career in respiratory therapy?
Johnson: To be quite honest, I think I was much like a lot of other people in the field, not having known very much about respiratory therapy to begin with, but ultimately fell in love with it.
My niece was born prematurely and had to stay in the NICU for several weeks. That was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that, but it was very intriguing. I started asking questions and ended up in the AAS program with the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J. where I resided at the time. I moved to Georgia and knew finishing my bachelor’s [degree] was in my plans, so I was so grateful to have found the program with Georgia State.
Weaver: I had a close family member that was critically ill and on a ventilator. I did not understand a lot of what I was told about his illness and prognosis. The RTs were very professional and were able to explain to me what was happening. I wanted to understand better what was going on and what the numbers and medical jargon meant. I would talk to the therapists when they were in the room and ask them questions. They were always willing to talk with me about their jobs. I knew I wanted to change careers, and this sounded like a good fit for me.
Did you consider another healthcare field first?
Scates: My original plan was to obtain an RT degree and then go back to anesthesia school; however, I ended up on the leadership track instead.
Johnson: Yes, I did! I wanted to be a pediatrician. I saw my niece get her first vaccination, and I cried with her, so needless to say, that didn’t happen. Little did I know that drawing blood gases was in my immediate future.
What changes have you noticed in the RT field since you first began working?
Weaver: Patient care has become much more integrated, relying on an interdisciplinary team for the treatment of patients. The medical team expects the respiratory therapist to be the expert in all things respiratory.
Scates: I have noticed that RT is more of an entry-level profession and many RTs are now going back to school to obtain advanced degrees.
Johnson: There has been a big change with therapists having more autonomy in most states, which is a great thing! We need more experience and opportunities to put our skills to work that we have been trained to do. I believe there is still room for advancement opportunities, but it will take thinking outside of the box per se.
How has COVID-19 changed respiratory therapy?
Scates: COVID has been very challenging for the hospital, particularly RT. Being a respiratory disease, it has commanded a lot of the RT resources. We have been able to pull together as a team and have done an amazing job caring for this patient population.
Weaver: COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of respiratory care and having professionals with the expertise to deal with an ever-changing situation.
There have been many changes in the treatment algorithms for COVID-19 positive patients. We no longer jump to intubation. We are learning more about the course of the illness and try to stave off intubation by using innovative support measures such as high flow oxygen, noninvasive ventilation and proning.
We have had to make adjustments in how we connect with patients. PPE and isolation precautions have made it very difficult to communicate with patients. Finding ways to overcome the obstacles so that you can still have a human connection with the patient has been one of the biggest challenges for respiratory.
Johnson: From the perspective of leadership, checking on your team’s mental health has been much more critical with COVID into play. Every turn and move having to think about COVID has caused such great anxiety even simply with people accepting job offers. Getting in front of the mental aspects of this pandemic has been incredibly critical.
What is something you think people should know about RT?
Johnson: We are more than treatments. We are high level critically thinking professionals that are more than basic medicine. Respiratory therapists are very compassionate professionals that love our patients and what we do. We all should be grateful for our respiratory therapists because we have always been essential to all patients and always will be!
Weaver: You must have the knowledge and understanding of the whole patient and all of the systems involved. Everything is connected. Changes or treatments in one area of patient care can directly connect with the patient’s respiratory status.
Scates: RT is a great profession and can lead to many great opportunities. The key is to invest your time and skill in learning all you can so you can show value in your profession. Putting your best foot forward no matter what RT level you are will open more doors than you can ever imagine!
What has been your biggest challenge as an RT?
Scates: My personal challenge has been learning how to manage and lead people. To have a great department, you need a great leadership team.
Johnson: For me, it has been tough trying to be the change to push the profession forward. I honestly feel like there are so many incredibly talented therapists that could make some advancements in equipment and supplies even within our own RT community. I think we are overdue for some challenges amongst the therapist to push them to greater heights and make some forward movement with our beautiful profession, and as a leader, I’m here for the changes!
Weaver: Watching patients continue to repeat behaviors and habits that destroy their health. Being able to keep a smile on your face, be positive and encouraging when they are not ready to make changes that will help them feel better.
What advice would you give to current RT students you didn’t receive when you were a student?
Weaver: Look at the patient — don’t just read the numbers off the monitor. You can get a better clinical picture of the patient by looking at and talking with the patient.
Johnson: You are always being interviewed even when you are not. Your name and reputation carry around the globe way before you even step into someone’s office to say hello. How you treat people will last for a lifetime because the respiratory community is big but oh so small. What you do today will impact your tomorrow in five years. Choose your moves wisely.
Scates: If I could go back, I would tell myself to obtain as many RT credentials as you can while in school or shortly after. It’s the best time to get those accomplishments on your resume. I would also tell myself not to limit your mind with “I ‘am just an RT.” I have met several CEOs and executive directors that are RTs! Every day is a job interview.
– by Angela Go