As director of respiratory care services at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, Janice Thalman, MHS, RRT, FAARC, oversees a staff of 135 RRTs, half of whom also hold a bachelor’s degree. These therapists not only deliver some of the most cutting edge care in the nation but also add to the scientific evidence through ongoing research presented at national respiratory care meetings like the AARC Congress and published in leading medical journals, including the AARC’s own Respiratory Care.
But like most successful respiratory therapists today, she didn’t start out in such auspicious surroundings. In fact, her first job in the field was as a contract therapist at a hospital that might be considered the polar opposite of where she is now.
Jack of all trades
“My first job in respiratory care was in 1978 in a 70-bed hospital in Canonsburg. PA,” recalls the AARC member. “The department was made up of three RRTs and a director.” Together they covered both the day and evening shifts, and whoever was on evenings was also on call during the night.
No job was too big or too small. “We washed and gas sterilized all the equipment ourselves; hauled H cylinder tanks everywhere—the only area with piped in gas was a very small ICU,” she says. “We drew and ran all of the ABGs and we did PFTs for coal miners from the area.” They also managed the ventilators, gave IPPB treatments, and intubated patients when needed. At the end of each shift, they tallied the charges for the day and sent them in to the contact agency that provided their services to the hospital.
Six months into the job the contract agency sent her on to serve as interim department director at another hospital in Punxsutawney, PA. “With little experience and even less management training, I packed up and took on this role for six weeks,” says Jan. Looking back, she believes she was targeted for the position because she’d proved herself to be a hard worker at the Canonsburg facility—and she was also willing to do it on short notice.
Run it like you own it
Those early experiences gave her the know-how she needed to hire on at Duke about a year later, and she has spent the last 35+ years building on them as she’s moved up the ranks. “I wish I could say that my scientific excellence and grasp of technology was what lead to my advancements, but it was more than likely due to the fact that I worked hard, worked overtime when asked, and always did ‘extra.’”
Having a mentor in the late Houston Anderson, RRT, made a world of difference as well. Anderson, who is well known by anyone who has been in respiratory care for a while, taught her what it meant to be passionate about her career. “He was one of the most forward thinking individuals I have known,” says Jan. “His number one piece of advice was ‘run it like you own it.’”
She took that advice, changing with the times as needed, learning to be creative in dealing with bureaucracies, and using the intuition she was born with to develop strong relationships and make sound hiring decisions. She also recognized the importance of furthering her education, earning her master’s degree in health science and clinical leadership from Duke in 2003.
Jan’s top career building advice: Experience all options in RT early on and then make a choice of career scope and begin to build that. If your choice is research then you need to know all there is to know about how it is done and network with your predecessors. If technology is your cup of tea, take it to an advanced status such as RT with a clinical engineering component to your resume. Recognize that whatever part of RC you are going for, the future requirements are likely to be much more sophisticated than an associate’s degree will take you.