Ya’ know, when I was 19 years old, my mom passed away. At her funeral, there were these strange women there, crying along with the family. None of my brothers and sisters knew a single one of them. It turned out that they were from the respiratory therapy department at the hospital mom always went to when sick. It was a little hospital. And I remember thinking “how awesome is that to be able to be that invested in your work?”. I guess it stuck wih me. And then later, John talked me into going back to school. I was too smart to not finish my degree, according to him. And so I did. I just wanted something that would support my family. I was going to try nursing, but I couldn’t handle the poop part of it. And I found out my college had a respiratory therapy department. I applied for admission into it. I didn’t think about the times mom’s cough would be productive and I would gag when she would cough into a tissue. I just remembered her funeral, her life, her demise. Along with my interest in medicine.
I became a respiratoty therapist. I never gave any thought to it. I had straight A’s, so how could they deny me admission into the program?
I finished my degree and I ran with it. My first resuscitation after graduating was a 6-month-old baby boy. They found him submerged headfirst in a bucket of mop water that had been left by a bed. We had no idea how long he was submerged. He was supposed to be taking a nap at the babysitter’s house. Of course we didn’t get him back, and I came home from work that day and told John that I had made a horrible mistake, that there was no way I could do this job. Nobody with a heart could. But I went back to work the next day. And the next. And somehow, I stopped being able to keep track of the resuscitations in which I have participated, except for a select few that hit particularly hard. Like the mom who died in childbirth and almost took her baby with her. We were successful at saving the baby, but not the mom. My last picture of that was the NICU door closing on the new widower cradling his new baby girl with a bewildered look as he sobbed for his dead wife. And then there was the little boy who was 3 days older than Evan, who tried to help his stressed Daddy out by taking his ADHD meds himself. Only he took the whole bottle and his heart stopped. And his mother wailed as I stood at the head of the bed, breathing for him until they told me to stop. Or the 35-year-old breast cancer patient who had contracted necrotizing fasciitis after having her lymph nodes removed. Someone thought it was a good idea to let her daughter come back and say good-bye before we called it. Her daughter was Evan’s age, and I can still hear her wailing, “Mommy, don’t leave me.” Those? Those I kept right here with me. They have never left.
It’s interesting isn’t it? For every one we couldn’t help, there were probably 2 that we did help. I don’t remember those. Their faces blur together and disappear into this infinite mosaic of faces that have wafted into and out of my life. My work. Evidence? The grandmother who ran into me and remembered my face as one that did CPR on her newborn grandson. Or the lady who ran into me at the grocery store and remembers me as one who responded to a code on her father. I was just standing there in the produce aisle with my family, with this blank smile on my face because I couldn’t very well come out and say, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t the foggiest who you are.” The successful ones become the equivalent as another Big Mac sold by the McDonald’s worker: I did my job. I’m so sorry I do not remember, and I never dreamed when I started this career that I would reach this point. Pretty much the best I can do is assure you that while I was there, I cared deeply. I still do. But when you are standing there sobbing while we do CPR, I have to block you out. I have to concentrate on my job. And when it was over, I don’t want to remember your sobs because then they stay in my head as a constant reminder of how fragile we all truly are. That it could’ve been my husband, one of my children, me. And while I am sorry that it is happening to you, to your loved one, I’m truly appreciative that it is not one of mine. I can be selfish like that. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
But I am not the only one. There is a whole profession out there of people who do what I do. And this week? Well, this is our week. National Respiratory Care Week. The hospital and the physicians, the drug reps and vendors, will shower us with food and freebies. And they’ll say thanks for what we do. And we will pat each other on the back for this week. But next Monday, it will be business as usual. People will live. We’ll help them. And some won’t make it. I’ll see an obituary with a familiar name and it will drive me crazy, serve as evidence of our failure. And then I’ll hate my job, but I’ll still go in the next day. And the next. And the next.
Somewhere along the way, I became a respiratory therapist.
It’s what I do.
It’s who I am.