Beth Summitt is a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Supervisor for respiratory care at a children’s hospital. She oversees twenty-three respiratory therapists. As a manager, she is responsible for writing policies and clinical guidelines, attending meetings, providing clinical shift meetings to her staff, managing the staff schedule, and mentoring her team. Beth also still provides patient care when needed. Beth has the opportunity to teach on occasion and leads a safety class that every hospital employee is required to attend. Beth works four days a week from 7 a.m to 4:30 p.m.
Respiratory therapists can serve in a variety of roles, depending on the size and type of hospital; for example, if they work in a hospital with ventilators, they typically serve on a medical team with physicians who make ventilator management decisions. At some hospitals, respiratory therapists run ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), a heart and lung bypass machine that allows a patient’s heart and/or lungs to heal. In many hospitals, respiratory therapists are part of the emergency team running codes, doing compressions, and providing ventilation when a patient needs to be resuscitated. Respiratory therapists manage artificial airways (i.e. breathing tubes) by taping, re-positioning, and removing them. At some hospitals, the respiratory therapist is responsible for placing the breathing tube. A significant part of the role is spent working to decrease the risk of events such as a breathing tube coming out unintentionally. Respiratory therapists are part of the transport teams that emergently transfer patients from one hospital to another. Beth mentioned that respiratory therapists in larger hospitals typically have more focused responsibilities, while in smaller hospitals the role may be broader.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up, Beth wanted to be a doctor. As she assessed the amount of time that would require and her personal values, she decided to look at other health professions. She looked for options that would allow her to balance a family and career.
Beth remembered her sister being sick as a baby and their mom doing respiratory treatments. In high school, she shadowed a friend she knew from church who was a respiratory therapist. She quickly fell in love with the profession. The emergency side was appealing and revealed the value and significance of respiratory therapists. She recalled her friend having to run down to the ER to resuscitate a patient!
Beth started researching programs–two at universities and one at a community college. She discovered that two offered associate’s programs and one offered a bachelor’s program. Ultimately, she chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The extremely competitive program only accepted twenty students per year, but Beth always had a high GPA and was accepted into the program. The last year of her five-year program focused on research to specialize in one area; however, most programs are now completed in four years.
Beth indicated there is a national push toward bachelor’s degree programs, so some universities are discontinuing associate’s degree program offerings. She brought up some master’s degree programs in respiratory therapy as well as physician’s assistant (PA) programs that can be pursued for further education. She also said some people use their degrees in respiratory therapy to go into sales or education, commonly working for pharmaceutical companies.
Beth said, “My number one piece of advice is to shadow someone, because you may have an idea of what a job is, but you don’t really know until you watch someone do the job.” She actually talked about someone who shadowed her four years ago in the NICU and will start working full time in just a few months. Beth said if you want to feel valued, contribute in significant ways, and make a difference in someone’s life, then your values align well with respiratory therapy because that’s what you do!
She also recommends you consider what career path a particular degree would translate to. Beth has had family members struggle because they pursued a degree to just have it without taking into consideration the jobs related to their degree. Beth ended by saying, “We don’t live in a time where a degree equals a job. Today, we need to think about having a degree that leads to a career path you’re interested in; that will also require planning, networking, and motivation.”