a respiratory therapist fits an oxygen mask to a heart failure patient's face

What Do Respiratory Therapists Do?

Hi. Welcome to heart-failure.net. My name is John. I am your respiratory therapist (RT). Some of you reading this may already know what I do. You may have already met someone from my profession. Or you may have read about what we do. Heck, maybe you are an RT or work with one. Maybe there’s an RT in your circle of family and friends. If so, you probably already know what we do.

For the rest, I figured a pithy explanation is in order. So, what qualifies me to write for a community like this? What actually does a respiratory therapist do? How do we help people with heart failure? Here’s what to know.

Where do respiratory therapists work?

For starters, we work in hospitals. Our jobs are to manage the lungs and airways. Anytime a person has trouble breathing we are called to their room. So, usually, this first meeting occurs in the emergency room.

Heart failure can be both chronic and acute. Chronic means that it’s always there. Most people with heart failure see a doctor, such as an internist or cardiologist. These doctors can help you manage your disease on a daily basis. This can be done with a combination of diet, medicine, and sometimes home oxygen therapy.

Acute means it’s happening right now. It means it’s flaring up. It means your heart is not quite pumping strong enough to effectively pump blood through your body. When this happens, new or worsening feet or ankle swelling may occur. It may cause a cough, irregular heartbeat, or rapid heartbeat. It may also cause fluid to back up into your lungs making it hard to breathe.

These are all signs you need to seek medical attention. You may even need to call 911. If you go to the emergency room you will probably meet a respiratory therapist. You will meet someone just like me.

What do respiratory therapists do for heart failure?

First of all, we introduce ourselves: “Hi. I’m John from respiratory therapy. I’m here to help you breathe easier.” I mean, that’s assuming that’s your issue. Sometimes I visit you for another reason. I also give breathing treatments. I do EKGs. I do lots of education. I have all sorts of jobs.

Regardless, let’s assume you’re having a flare-up (hopefully, you can avoid this, but I just want to show something here). We are experts in the lungs and airways. When someone is having trouble breathing, we are among the first called to assist you. We have all sorts of wisdom and equipment at our disposal to help you breathe easier.

We work right alongside doctors and nurses. Doctors oversee everything. They may prescribe medicine to make your heart stronger or to make you pee. Medicines that make you pee are called diuretics. They can help get some of that excess fluid out of your lungs - if that’s the cause of your symptoms.

Nurses are the ones to give you this medicine. Yes, it entails them putting an IV into your arm. Although this is nice because then they don’t have to keep poking you. Nurses, like us RTs, also have many other jobs.

Tricks of the trade

So, a doctor orders medicine. The nurses give them to you. A problem is that it may take some time for all these medicines to work. In the meantime, we RTs are available to help you breathe easier right now.

We have access to oxygen if that is needed. Inhaling oxygen can help maintain your oxygen levels. Sometimes this may require you to wear an oxygen mask. Other times it requires wearing a nasal cannula. Cannulas fit into your nostrils and wrap around your ears. They are generally comfortable and well-tolerated.

We also have machines, such as BiPAP machines. These devices apply pressures to your airways to help relieve the feeling of shortness of breath. This is done by placing a mask over your face.

More about the BiPAP

The pressure will help you inhale. It will also help keep your airways open. So, BiPAP can help make the next breath come easier. We can also give you all the oxygen you need with BiPAP. So, this can also help make your breathing easier right now.

Usually, the need for BiPAP is only temporary. Once the medicine starts working your breathing improves. Many times I have had someone on BiPAP in the emergency room. Yet, by the time they are admitted to the floors once they are breathing easy. Sometimes they are discharged to home right from the ER. I have seen that too.

So that’s part of what we respiratory therapists do. We walk you through every step of the way, talking you through every step as we go. And once you’re breathing easier we can talk. You can tell me about your kids or ask me about mine. Or we can talk about baseball or politics or sewing or whatever interests you.

We are here to help

There’s a lot of other things we do too. We take care of asthmatics and people living with COPD. We also take care of people living with cystic fibrosis. A part of what we do is give respiratory medicines using nebulizers and inhalers. We also, along with nurses, do lots of teaching. We certainly hope you can avoid hospitals. But, if you ever need us, we are here to help.

What about you? Have you ever benefited from the services of a respiratory therapist? Please let us know in the comments below.

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