The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our healthcare workers into the spotlight. As a society, we have become acutely aware of their vital role. While attention typically focuses on doctors and nurses, there are hosts of essential workers within a hospital who stand on the frontlines to guard patients from sickness.
With a novel disease that primarily affects the lungs, respiratory therapists and technicians are among the most crucial workers in the COVID-19 battle. Yet due to the nature of the current pandemic, they can be exposed to some of the sickest patients.
It has been only two months since Ashley Lawson began working as a respiratory technician at Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster, and already she has been quarantined twice. Lawson, however, wouldn’t change a thing about her career path. “It feels like my mission to help others,” she said.
Lawson began working as a respiratory technician before graduating from Washington State Community College’s respiratory therapy program last month. As a technician, she performs a wide variety of diagnostic testing and treatments under supervision. After passing the state board licensure exam, Lawson will be promoted to a respiratory therapist. Respiratory therapists help diagnose and treat a wide variety of respiratory difficulties. Their expertise lies in assessing blood gases, assisting with intubations and bronchoscopies, and specializing in ventilator management.
Despite the two close calls, Lawson was spared a positive coronavirus diagnosis, yet her first quarantine will forever be etched in her mind. The experience brought home the reality of dangers faced by frontline workers and led to her first-ever separation from her family. Though on paper her quarantine lasted only a week, the days stretched by seemingly endlessly as the longest and loneliest of her life. “It was awful,” Lawson said. She spent her days alone, praying she would show no symptoms.
Lawson said surviving the ordeal was possible only because she has such a strong support system, and she was especially grateful for the meals left outside the basement door by her mother and mother-in-law. However, it was the interruption of her children’s bedtime routine that she found the hardest to take. That is when even the door’s thickness, which separated her from her family, seemed unfathomably large. While she understood it served to guard her loved ones from potential harm, her arms physically ached with her desire to hug her babies – nine-year-old Nate and seven-year-old Ava. It was especially difficult for her children to understand.
Each evening, the doorway that was so loathed during the day served as the spot where everyone gathered to say “Goodnight” and “I love you.” They leaned in tight, trying to get as close as possible to the wooden barrier, and listened intently as Mommy read them a bedtime story. Though Lawson poured love into every word she read, it did nothing to hasten the week’s end. “It was heartbreaking,” Lawson said.
Despite the strife that isolation brought, Lawson said she believes a career in respiratory therapy is her calling.
“I have zero regrets,” she said. “When I entered the field, I was scared about COVID-19, but truth be told, I feel God has put me where I belong at the time I am supposed to be.”
Dr. Rob Kinker, WSCC’s director of the Respiratory Therapy Technology program, said that as the current pandemic persists, he expects to hear stories similar to Lawson’s repeated by many graduates of his program. However, he pointed out that students learn early on in the classroom, as well as during orientations from hospitals, that these types of risks exist. Kinker said he doesn’t believe the threat of disease will ever curtail a respiratory therapist because, like Lawson, they pursue the career for a greater purpose.
“Most of them want to help others,” Kinker said, “usually because a friend or family member suffers from a pulmonary disease.”
The respiratory therapy field has had higher-than-average employment rates for several years, and Kinker said he doesn’t anticipate that to slow down any time soon. In fact, he reported that all of his new graduates had multiple offers, some of which included significant hiring bonuses. He also highlighted the success of his program, which has a 100% first-time pass rate and success rate on the state licensure exam.
Admission to the Respiratory Therapy Technology program at WSCC is completed on a selective basis. The program is full for this coming academic year and is currently accepting applications for fall 2021.