Restoring lung health for the most vulnerable patients

By The Health News Team | December 13, 2023
Sharp Grossmont Hospital respiratory therapist team

Sharp Grossmont Hospital respiratory therapist team.

When it comes to caring about our lungs — and their ability to provide the essential oxygen we all need to survive — those who care nearly as much as we do are the ones who have dedicated their careers to restoring lung health for some of the most vulnerable patients: respiratory therapists.

Respiratory therapists are part of the vital medical team caring for patients that have severe trouble breathing — from the tiniest lungs of premature infants to older adults with chronic lung disease. Under the guidance of physicians, respiratory therapists provide therapies to improve patients’ breathing. This may include giving oxygen, managing ventilators and administering medications.

“When I was at the bedside as a respiratory therapist, I would use my knowledge and expertise in the field to care for the sickest of the sick patients,” says Gary Phelps, manager of pulmonary services at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “As a result of my efforts, I would see great improvement in the patients’ conditions, work of breathing, fear and anxiety.”

Phelps now oversees a team of respiratory therapists who, at any given moment, can be found in all corners of the hospital. They assist in the intensive care units, pediatrics and even in areas such as the operating room.

“We are also part of the code and emergency response teams for different emergencies that occur in the hospital, such as a code sepsis, code stroke, and so on,” says Phelps. “Not being able to breathe is a matter of life and death, so we are right there at the front lines in the thick of it all.”

Critical during the pandemic

Respiratory therapists across the nation played a crucial role at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when patients whose lungs were scarred by the virus struggled with serious breathing issues. Such issues led to life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress and acute respiratory failure.

Lien Keller, a clinical lead respiratory therapist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, recalls when the first patient with COVID-19 was admitted.

“I remember the patient was intubated and on a ventilator,” says Keller. “The patient was very sick, and at that time, we knew very little about the treatment of COVID-19.”

In spite of the uncertainties, the collective efforts of the Sharp Grossmont Hospital clinicians and staff led to the patient’s recovery. “The patient was a fighter,” says Keller. “Our team successfully extubated the patient, and the patient was able to go home.”

Treating fragile, young lungs

For Phelps, being a part of a team that also plays a vital role in saving the lives of the youngest of patients has had an impact.

“Some of the more uplifting and impressionable moments for me have been during my time in the neonatal intensive care unit when caring for micro premature infants — that is, infants weighing less than 1,000 grams,” says Phelps. “These infants are extremely sick and sensitive to their environment. Any little movement or sound would cause them to decompensate.”

Phelps, who has served in the field of respiratory therapy for more than three decades, credits the team of nurses, doctors and other respiratory therapists he has worked with over the years for helping patients bounce back from the most dire medical conditions.

“There is not a more satisfying feeling to me than alleviating the fear and stress of my patients that are having difficulty breathing,” Phelps says. “I know how hard it is to breathe when I’m a little congested or have the flu, and that is only a fraction of what some of our patients are feeling.”

Keller shares that being a respiratory therapist is emotional, rewarding and requires collaboration. They work closely with nurses and doctors, so good communication and teamwork are a must, she says.

“We face things that are terrifying to us and our patients,” Phelps adds. “But because of our support for each other, we manage to persevere and become stronger as a clinician and a person.”

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Gary Phelps

Contributor

Gary Phelps is a manager of respiratory therapy at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

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Lien Keller

Contributor

Lien Keller is a clinical lead respiratory therapist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.


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