Respiratory therapists give the breath of life

As a registered respiratory therapist, Burnaby Hospital’s Darwin Chan is proud to say that he’s there with patients from their first breath to their last.

Some days, the professional practice leader of respiratory services in B.C.’s Fraser Health region attends births and resuscitates newborn babies. On others, he stands at the bedside of ailing patients and is the one to turn off the machine when doctors and families agree hope is gone. And then there are times when he works right in the gap between death and new life, performing tests and compressing oxygen into an organ donor’s lungs to ready them for transplant to a grateful recipient.   “For a long time in CPR, we used the acronym A-B-C to stand for Airway, Breathing and Circulation. I like to say respiratory therapists are involved in the ABCs of life. And that’s precious,” explains Chan. Chan has been a respiratory therapist for 11 years, and says the diversity of the work has meant he’s constantly growing in his field. Over the course of his career, he’s worked across the BC Lower Mainland in hospital acute care, in diagnostics at pulmonary function labs, and in home care as an educator in the community. Chan joined Fraser Health in 2005, working at Eagle Ridge, Royal Columbian and Peace Arch hospitals, before taking over as professional practice leader at Burnaby Hospital in 2015.

“Because of my experience,” Chan says , “I understand a patient’s journey from home to diagnostic services to hospital so I know how help them cope at home to avoid readmission to hospital.” In a typical day, Chan spends his time doing rounds with patients, reviewing their care, medications and conditions, performing procedures that range from intubations to tracheotomies, supporting surgical and trauma patients, and responding to Code Blue emergencies.

“A lot of what we do involves working closely with doctors and nurses,” Chan said. “There is no hero in health care. It’s not like TV where one doctor saves the day. In real life, it’s about teams. You’re always trying to support each other.”

“In this job, you really need to work well with others,” he says. “Good time management skills are important so you can prioritize patients and juggle emergencies. With an aging population and seasonal respiratory illnesses, it can get very busy. It’s never boring.” Aside from the clinical component of respiratory therapy, Chan enjoys being involved in patient education, teaching patients about quitting smoking, how to correctly use medications, and how to manage chronic lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It’s this variety in respiratory practice that first attracted him to the field. When he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from UBC in the early 2000s, Chan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Then a friend told him about respiratory therapy and he was struck by the fact that he could be “involved in the whole spectrum of health care.” He earned his RT degree in a two-year fast-track diploma program at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. and found a job right after graduation in 2005: respiratory therapists are in high demand.

They should continue to be. Service Canada’s latest April 2015 job outlook for respiratory therapists is bright. According to the federal agency, the rise in the incidence of respiratory diseases coupled with an aging population and increase in out-patient care and means the number of graduates with a diploma in respiratory technology is currently “insufficient to meet the demand for respiratory therapists, especially outside the urban areas.”

But for Chan, job security comes second to the daily rewards of his job.

“It’s a good field because you really get to see we make a difference,” Chan says. “Many times when we first see a patient they’re very sick on a breathing tube. The next thing you know you’re visiting them at home and they’re up and walking and you think wow, we really do help people get back to their normal life.”

Video Links:

Darwin Chan on what makes a good respiratory therapist:

Darwin Chan on the rewards of giving life and breath: