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Breathing life into patients


Crystalline Poh, Respiratory Therapist, Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Healthcare has always held a special place in my heart. After graduating as a biotechnology student at Singapore Polytechnic, I learnt about healthcare scholarships and the 14 allied health professions covered under the scholarships. There were scholarships for commonly-known professions such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy, but what intrigued me was respiratory therapy. I had never heard of, or come into contact with a respiratory therapist. I did a little research, and found out that they work closely with doctors to care for patients suffering from respiratory conditions ranging from asthma to lung cancer.

The more I read about the profession, the more interested I was. Respiratory therapists work mostly in critical care and intensive care units (ICU) to care for intubated patients or patients on ventilators. They are also part of the critical code blue team to resuscitate patients who collapse without a heartbeat. Given its nature, it was one of the few allied health professions which requires critical thinking on the spot. I decided to submit my application and as fate would have it, I was offered a scholarship!

Today, as a full-fledged respiratory therapist, I work 12-hour shifts as most of my work is in the intensive care unit where patients must be monitored 24/7. My work day begins with getting a download of my patients’ cases from the respiratory therapist in charge of the previous shift. When the doctors make their rounds, I follow the team and participate in discussions for intubated patients.

Part of my job also involves reviewing my patients’ cases and making necessary dosage adjustments. My days can get quite unpredictable – if we get new admissions from the emergency department, there is no time to waste. We have to hook the patient onto the ventilator in the shortest time possible. Hence, we must always be on standby and keep our equipment in tip top condition. I love that I am always on the go in my job!

A mistaken belief people have about respiratory therapists is that they only administer Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). Just like any other healthcare professional, I am trained in CPR and am ever-ready to step in when the situation requires me to, but I do so much more than that. I have even been asked if my job is to teach people how to breathe! At times, we do coach and teach patients breathing techniques. However, my main job is to manage airway equipment, such as ventilators and arterial blood gas machines.

One of my most memorable cases was a patient warded in the surgical ICU. At work, I usually rotate between the different ICUs and only see each patient for one to two days. However, this particular patient, an uncle in his 60s, had been in the surgical ICU for 100 days. As it is not possible for patients to be intubated for a long period of time, he had to have a tracheostomy (a procedure to create an opening) near his windpipe to help him breathe. During my rounds, I would greet him and share words of encouragement. Even though he could not speak, he was cognisant and replied me by mouthing his words. We would also communicate using a board and a marker. He eventually passed away due to complications.

This might sound really cliché, but being able to save lives motivates me. When I witness intubated patients wean off the breathing tube and eventually get discharged… it gives me an amazing sense of accomplishment.

If you enjoy being on your feet and the challenges of a fast-paced environment, respiratory therapy might just be it for you – just like how it was for me.