With the unfortunate rise of lung-related conditions brought on partially by the pandemic, the need for respiratory therapists has never been more rampant. In this episode of Health Careers, Dr. Richard Marn is joined by Registered Respiratory Therapist Aimee Eaton. Aimee found her calling only after pursuing a different path, but she’s never looked back since! Join in on the conversation to find out how Aimee discovered her purpose and why respiratory therapy might be the career for you too! Plus, she explains how COVID exponentially increased the need for RRTs now and in the future. Stay tuned!
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S1E62 – The Journey To Becoming A Respiratory Therapist With Aimee Eaton
I have another great guest for you. I am blessed to have her on. Her occupation has helped save lives during this pandemic in 2021 and even 2020. I am fortunate to find somebody in this profession that is not only available but loves her career, what she’s doing, and how she’s helping people. You’re going to understand why in this interview. We are going to be talking with Aimee Eaton. She is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, otherwise known as an RRT. Sometimes we refer to it as RT.
She will explain how she’s helping people and having a positive effect on patients, even outside of COVID. You’ll also learn about different settings in which RTs can work. Before we get started, if you like this episode or this show, please hit that like button on whatever podcast app you are using. That would help bring attention to the show to other people that are seeking a resource to help them out. Without further ado, let’s jump into this episode.
Everybody, welcome. Thanks for joining us. We have another fantastic guest with us. We have Ms. Aimee Eaton who is in Las Vegas. Aimee, how are you doing?
I’m good. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
It is wonderful to have you on especially during this pandemic. We’re going to talk about your career. Your career has been very impactful and important with what’s going on in our world with the pandemic. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Aimee Eaton. I went to school and live in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve been a Registered Respiratory Therapist for a few years. By the time the pandemic hit, I had just hit a year, maybe a little bit over. That was interesting to get into. Before that, though, I started using social media to try to teach people about my profession. I love being a Respiratory Therapist. We dealt with the cardiopulmonary system, mechanical ventilation or life support. There were a lot of people that didn’t realize what we did. I thought it would be fun and interesting to start some of those conversations.
What are the usual steps to achieve your professional degree?
It’s a minimum of an Associate’s degree. That’s about two years to start, not counting your prerequisites. After you obtain your Associate’s degree, we have two board exams we have to sit through. The heart and lungs are important. They want to make sure we know our stuff. The first one’s very simple. It’s like a multiple-choice exam. We have to do something called the Clinical Simulation Exam where we’re given various scenarios of very sick patients from the neonatal to the geriatric population. We have to resolve whatever issues are presented in the clinical scenario.
That’s basically an Associate’s degree, then you sit for the two exams and you’re in.A breathing treatment can change somebody's life. Click To Tweet
As long as you pass them. I think there’s about a 50% or 60% pass rate on those board exams. They’re pretty tough.
After high school, you can get an Associate’s degree. What’s the shortest duration from when you start your Associate’s degree to when you become an RRT on average?
Two to four years, depending on the type of school you go to. They are trade schools where they incorporate your prerequisites and it’s all very rapid, which is what I did a little later in life, though. You can graduate and get your degree and start working within two years. I had classmates that by the time they were 20, 21 were already working in level-one trauma centers. You can start out fast. It goes by fast also.
We’re going to get into it later, but you take care of some real sick patients and situations. What is the best part of your career?
We deal with many age ranges. We also don’t stay in one area of the hospital. There have been times where I’ve been able to follow a patient’s progression from entering the hospital, going into ICU, then watching them be able to walk out and leave. I see them in every area of the hospital and watch them heal, progress, get better, and share in that triumph or victory for them. Getting to see their face when they realize that they’re getting to go home is one of my favorite things.
That sounds very satisfying. What’s your least favorite part of your career?
Since we deal with the heart and lungs, we are the ones that remove life support. That can be quite difficult. That’s probably my least favorite part. That can be quite tough.
What are the three highlights of your profession that people should know about? Another way to phrase it is, what are some misconceptions people have maybe?
Doing respiratory, depending on the area. There are certain floors that we are more active on than others. Critical care and emergency medicine are our bread and butter. If someone’s not in that area, sometimes they think all we do are breathing treatments or incentive spirometers. Our scope of practice covers much wider than that. We do intubations, arterial lines, vascular access, and manage life support. We definitely do more than breathing treatments. Although a breathing treatment can change somebody’s life depending on what they’re there for. That’s probably the biggest one.
We do need at least an Associate’s degree and we have board exams. Some people think it’s on-the-job training because many years ago it used to be. It’s no longer like that. It does require a degree. We get paid pretty well too. I’ve had people ask me if I get paid minimum wage or they’ll think that I get paid barely above it. That goes along with the misconception of what our job involves. We get paid much better than a lot of people think.
Can you speak to what the typical starting salary would be for RRT?
It varies widely throughout the country. If you go to the Southern states and on the East Coast, they get paid quite a bit less than on the West Coast and Central. It can be anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 depending on the area, if not more and also if you specialize. I started at $55,000 as a new grad, somewhere around there, which for two years of schooling is not bad.
Less debt too that you picked up. What’s your typical day like, Aimee? Tell us what’s a typical day like for you. I know not every day’s the same. When do you show up? What do you do during the day? How do you start your day? How do you end it? When do you usually leave?
I work in a level-one trauma facility. Depending on the floor I’m working on, it can be very different. I mentioned that most respiratory therapists rotate throughout the hospital. If I am in ICU, I work night shift. It’s twelve-hour shifts. Usually, three twelve-hour shifts a week, which is great for work-life balance, but night shift is rough. I start around 6:30 at night. You start by getting a report on your patients from whoever had them during the day. After that, I personally go in and review patients’ charts, labs and X-rays to get an idea of who my sickest patients are so I can prioritize the care I’m providing.
Pre-pandemic, rounding was at a very specific time. I would go around if I was in the ICU with the physicians as they’re talking about different patients’ treatment plans. It helped me figure out what direction we were trying to go and what our goals were for the plan of care. I could also ask questions or give suggestions if there was something that was concerning me or something I thought could be added to that care plan.
After that, you start your patient care, whether that’s doing checks for life support or mechanical ventilation, making sure that everything’s functioning properly, that it’s the appropriate setting for the patient. Just basic patient care, but the main thing is respiratory therapists are generally also responsible for all patients in their units.
If there is an emergency response that’s called overhead, a code blue or a trauma activation, we’re required to go to those. Even if that patient wasn’t initially on our services, the airway is our responsibility. We’re usually one of the first people in the room. It can either be very smooth or a little hectic, depending on how many emergencies there are that night.
Aimee, you did talk about the scope of practice. Can you go into detail a bit more about what you’re doing? You’re trained to put a breathing tube into patients. You’re able to manage the ventilator. Can you talk about some of the details about what you do typically in your scope of practice?
Each hospital is a little bit different. I work at a teaching facility. They like to have the residents learn how to intubate. There are facilities that the RTs are the only ones intubating or it’s front off of protocols. Some of those protocols are in place, not only to allow the respiratory therapist to intubate but to allow for that medication to be pushed. Unfortunately, I cannot give paralytics and sedatives as a respiratory therapist.
In school, they do train you to place an endotracheal tube through the mouth, then into the lungs to help ventilate and support a patient. Some clinical rotations, if it’s in an area where the RTs widely do the intubations, they’ll have them go into the OR and practice intubations for patients that are doing elective surgeries. After that point, if an emergency situation comes up, they’ll have their preceptor and a physician there available, and they will start learning how to do that in active practice during emergencies. It’s interesting. A lot of people don’t realize that we can do that.
I don’t even know you did vascular access. Are you putting in central lines to major vessels or just peripheral IVs?
That depends on the facility but they do both. A lot of times, they like respiratory therapists to be on those teams because if we’re already doing arterial lines, arterial blood gases, and used to using some of that equipment to do that, it’s just a little extra training on top of that.
Your job is very procedure-oriented.
We do a lot of procedures.
You mentioned being in a hospital. Do respiratory therapists ever work outside of a hospital?
A lot of respiratory therapists will work at the pulmonologist’s office or sleep labs. They can work at long-term care facilities, education, research. There are a lot of different avenues you can go into, but the primary one that you’re going to see a respiratory therapist at is within hospitals because our bread and butter are critical care and emergency medicine. That is why RTs are usually some of the calmest people you’ll ever meet.Because we do not know how COVID is going to affect people long-term, a lot are leaving with respiratory issues, and we do have an aging population. We're going to need a lot more people that specialize in the lungs. Click To Tweet
I once had a nurse tell me, there was an emergency. I was like, “We need to do this now.” She looked at me and she was like, “Are you okay?” I was like, “No, we need to do this now. I need you to call them.” She’s like, “RT said to do it now. Call them. An emergency is about to happen.” Apparently, I sounded not as calm as I normally am. Anytime an RT says there is an emergency, people are usually like, “We got to do something. We got to do it quickly.”
Aimee, tell me some of the situations in your work, whether it’s recently or in the past, where you had an impact on someone or your work was very impactful to somebody.
Not very long ago, I went into a business and I’m talking to someone. I’m looking at some tattoos they had on their arm. I was looking at them. I was like, “Those tattoos look familiar.” Maybe I’ve seen them on Instagram or something similar. They’re really beautiful. This person started looking back at me a little bit oddly.
We’re looking at each other and conducting business. They asked me, “Where do you work?” I tell them where I work. They make a face again. Because there’s a pandemic, I’m like, “Oh no, they’re going to get scared or get freaked out.” They were like, “What do you do?” I told them I was a respiratory therapist. Usually, I just tell people, “I’m a respiratory therapist. I deal with life support, the heart and lungs,” very simple and quick explanation.
They looked at me and they said, “I think you took care of me when I got really sick.” This specific person had gotten sick while they were pregnant and ended up having to have an emergency C-section. It was the craziest moment because they are crying. I was crying. They’re showing me pictures of their beautiful little baby and how they’re doing. I’m getting all emotional thinking about it.
That was probably one of the craziest and most amazing things that have happened. A lot of times, especially when you work in the hospital, you know someone’s left, but you don’t get to see how they’re doing after. Getting to talk to them and having them tell me that it was nice to have someone calm in the room and talking to them. During an emergency, it can get loud. It can get chaotic. I always try to make sure I’m focusing on the patient since I’m right at the head of the bed, right before we’ve put in breathing tubes. I’ll talk to them, whether I know if they’re going to remember it or not, depending on how sick they are. I always talk to people. I try to give them some reassuring words and calmness. Apparently, this person remembered it and I ran into them. It was the craziest thing.
For a lot of the hospital-based occupations, radiology, anesthesiology, respiratory therapists, we don’t get to see the patients outside of work or even in a clinic setting. Sometimes often in these acute settings, we don’t get to see how they’re doing afterward. That’s great to know that you had a profound effect on that moment for them, especially during the birth of their kid. That’s great that you left that mark. I want to change gears a little bit, Aimee. I want to talk a little bit about the professional outlook. How do most people get into RT? You mentioned the typical requirements to get in, but do most people follow that course or do people come from other professions?
Respiratory therapy isn’t a widely known profession. It has become a little bit more known because of the pandemic. For a lot of people, this is not their first career. Not everybody comes from a background in medicine. I came from banking. Other people will come from EMS, CNA or stuff like that. I have a couple of coworkers that used to be Certified Nursing Assistants and then went into respiratory therapy after.
They come from all over. A lot of times, these people are looking to be in the medical profession and maybe nursing doesn’t call to them, or maybe they had respiratory issues as a child. They think back to that and they go, “I could do that. I think that’s a field I would be interested in.” Usually, it’s people exploring or having an experience somewhere and meeting a respiratory therapist. That’s what it was for me. I had no idea what respiratory therapy was before I did it, to be honest. I started looking it up after an experience. I was like, “That sounds amazing. I want to do that. That sounds great.”
What do you think the future outlook is like for respiratory therapists?
We already have a shortage. Especially because we do not know how COVID is going to affect people long-term and those that did live. A lot of people are living with respiratory issues and we do have an aging population. We’re definitely going to need a lot more people that specialize in the lungs. That’s going to increase the need for respiratory therapists even more. We’re already seeing that need at this moment. They cannot have enough RTs fast enough.
The supply of RTs is low. The demand is high. You foresee that’s going to be likely true for the next few years.
I think it will be.
Is it hard to get into these RT programs?
Each one is a little bit different. There’s an exam you have to take to make sure you’re proficient in at least basic Mathematics, English, things of that sort. You have to get recommendations and have decent grades. It’s getting tougher now because there are many people who are applying, now that they realize what respiratory therapy is. I know a few people that work at schools, specifically in RT programs. They said they had some of the highest application rates since the pandemic started. That’s going to make it a little bit more difficult.
It might be a little bit more competitive. What type of students do you think best flourish in this career as an RT?
You need to be curious. We do a lot of procedures. You do learn a lot in school, but you need to be able to think critically, be quick on your feet, and be ready for anything. A lot of your learning is going to come in those clinical rotations that you do because most things are not textbooks. You won’t know a situation until you run into it. As long as you’re curious, eager to learn, humble, easy to teach, those are going to be your biggest things. They’re tough courses but the most important thing is being able to apply that knowledge in clinical practice.
Let’s change it now to about you. How did you get into RT? How did that even come about as a career option for you?
I was looking around. I wanted something in healthcare. I have a lot of family in healthcare but those areas weren’t calling to me. I had heard a lot of things. I had read a lot of things. I saw it growing up. I was thinking back to a situation I had while I was researching medical careers. I had a very sick family member. As I was telling you before, when there’s an emergency in the room, RTs are usually some of the calmest people in the room until the code team arrives.
I happened to be in the room while there was a medical emergency occurring for a family member. There was somebody at the head of the bed that was calm and talking to people about what we needed to do while they were waiting for the doctors to get there. They were calm and reassuring to everyone around them.
Even after, it was the same person that would come into the room and help my family member. They would explain what the mechanical ventilator was doing and what was going on. They were nice and calm all the time. I remember thinking, “What does that person do? Why are they so calm in these situations?” I want to learn more about that.
I fell down a little research hole and ran across respiratory therapy. The funny thing is I ended up working with that person after I graduated. It was years and years later. It was the hospital I always wanted to work at because it’s our level-one trauma center out here. One day, I walked into work and I was like, “That’s them. That’s the person. They’re still here.”
Did you tell them that they had an impact on you?
I didn’t. I was so nervous. I thought that they wouldn’t remember. I never told them. They retired a few months after I started. They retired and then they moved away. I was like, “Now, I’m never going to get to tell them.” I told other people. I’m sure they heard.A lot of your learning is going to come in those clinical rotations because most things are not in textbooks. The most important thing is being able to apply that knowledge in clinical practice. Click To Tweet
How would you describe yourself as a student though leading up to getting into RT school?
In high school, I was probably not the best student. I got everything done. I did graduate a little bit early. I was very “Let’s get it done. Get it out of the way” type of thing. In RT school, I feel like anything in healthcare, you have to study for it differently than any other type of course. Maybe that was just my experience. I felt like the studying was different, the material was different.
I had never taken courses like that. I did Anatomy and Physiology in school. That was about the extent of the body system. I didn’t do things like Physics or a lot of Chemistry. It was a lot of new information that I felt I needed to study more. I was very studious in school. We would do study groups. I was the one asking a lot of questions. I was always in the lab, practicing things and trying to get my hands on stuff because I’m a very hands-on learner. When you’re learning concepts, that can be difficult. You have to try to find a way to apply these theories and make them into something physical so you can get your hands on it and learn a little bit better. I was very involved in RT school, specifically. I was always at school.
It sounds like you were also very much into learning about that topic too. You want to learn a lot.
I was interested in it. To be honest, I was a little scared. The more we started getting into it, I was like, “These are people’s lives. I need to be on top of this. This is a lot of information.” I ended up graduating with almost a 4.0, which was cool. It worked but I was always at school. That was my life. Eating, breathing, dreaming respiratory therapy.
Is there anything in hindsight that you would have done differently?
I wish I had done it sooner. I know it’s crazy, especially being in the middle of the pandemic, but I love my profession so much. I’m bummed out that I didn’t find it and get into this earlier. It might be weird but I love what I do. I could nerd out about the lungs and mechanical ventilation for hours. The fact that it took me until my late twenties to do it is a bummer to me. I wish I had done it earlier, but I wouldn’t be in the place I am now.
I want to throw some questions at you. I call these rapid-fire questions. How long can you hold your breath?
I don’t know. I’d like to say a minute, but that might be a lie.
We’ll just say we don’t know that one yet. What is your favorite type of food for dinner?
I love sushi. I love tofu also. Don’t judge me.
What is your least favorite type of music?
Country. I can’t do it, but I do like some old countries.
What’s your favorite clothing brand?
Converse. I think that’s shoes.
We’ll go with that. I think you like the outdoors. What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
Scrambling. It’s like hiking with lots of climbing. I love it.
If you could live in a different state besides the one you live in now and where you’re going, where would you consider living?
I would consider living in Colorado or Tennessee just for outdoor stuff.
If you were a superhero, what superpower would you want?
Your hometown, you’re going to be leaving it. You’re leaving to go to Oregon. Are you going to miss your hometown?
Of course. I’m going to miss the people here. This is the only place I’ve worked. RT-wise, it’s going to be a whole new world. I’ve got family and friends here. I’m going to miss it, but I’ll come back to visit.
What do you feel the most proud of?
All of the accomplishments and the amazing things I’ve gotten to do by doing something I love and helping people. I think back on some of the amazing opportunities I’ve gotten and I’m like, “Is this my life? This is it. This is real.”
You sound like you had a great path. You’ve been on a great path. You’ve been helping a lot of people. It’s awesome that you were able to come on the show and talk about it. Thank you so much, Aimee. Before we leave, where can the audience go to reach you or learn more about you and what you’re doing?
I am pretty active on Instagram. You can find me at @BreatheEasy_RRT. I do a lot of talking to new grads and answering questions for people that are interested in the profession. My stories are used a lot for education, different research, and pieces of information I come across, or just fun memes. That’s where you can find me. I’m always happy to answer questions and talk to people too.
If you’re interested in Aimee and her profession, check out her Instagram feed. She gives her unique take on what’s going on. Who knows? Maybe you might be interested in this profession. Aimee, thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to talk to you and learn about how you’re helping people in a very important profession.
Thanks for having me. It’s been fun talking to you. I’m happy you invited me.