Respiratory therapists have gotten a lot of attention over these past months for their heroic work in caring for COVID-19 patients on the front lines. Kudos for a job well done have flooded the media, and many hospitals have recognized RTs for their crucial role in the battle against the coronavirus as well.
One group of RTs who were already heroes in anyone’s book has now received special recognition of its own. The Respiratory Care Practitioner career field in the U.S. Air Force was just named the 2021 Richard L. Etchberger Team of the Year, the highest honor given to Air Force career fields.
Named for Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism and brave actions in the Vietnam War, the award goes to “professionals who clearly display superior technical expertise, attract the praise of their superiors, and provide leadership and inspiration to their coworkers.”
CMSgt Lisa Pickett, RRT, RRT-NPS, CPFT, AE-C, is the field manager for the Respiratory Care Practitioner career field. When nominations opened up for this year’s Etchberger award, she submitted a package on behalf of the field to recognize the contributions Air Force therapists have made, not just to the care of COVID-19 patients but also to the care of Air Force beneficiaries as a whole.
“Everyone has stepped out of their comfort zone and made a difference in the world for themselves, their colleagues, and most importantly, their patients,” she said. “They deserve the praise and the honor for their daily acts.”
Low supply, high demand
The award was especially sweet because the Respiratory Care Practitioner career field consists of just 487 therapists, including those on active duty and in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves.
“We are a small but diverse career field,” CMSgt Pickett said.
The low supply, high demand nature of the field means RTs are always in need. That’s been the case since the Air Force first started training RTs some 25 years ago.
“The Air Force Medical Service community recognized a need for specialized medical professionals tasked with assisting physicians and their patients by providing complete and quality medical care in the fields of pulmonary, cardiology, and respiratory care,” explained CMSgt Pickett. “Over the past 25 years, Air Force respiratory care practitioners have expanded their technical reach far beyond providing diagnostic and therapeutic support in hardened medical facilities.”
Today therapists provide advanced operational support via ground and air, the latter through their service on the highly-trained Critical Care Air Transport Teams (CCATT), where they work alongside physicians and nurses.
“Training for this platform is maximized through partnerships at civilian trauma centers in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and St. Louis,” CMSgt Pickett said. “Serving as the only enlisted member on this team, our expertise in cardiopulmonary abnormalities has significantly improved the lifesaving capabilities in combat environments.”
Air Force therapists are deployed to a range of settings worldwide as needed, and their patients run the gamut from wounded soldiers to the families of military personnel and more. While the career field’s primary mission is to provide respiratory care, members also work as pulmonary technologists, including in the sleep lab. They serve as cardiology technicians and work in the cath lab as well.
Ready for anything
Selecting, training, and validating the skills of the therapists who make up the career field consumes a significant amount of resources. As the career field manager, CMSgt Pickett advocates for the training, deployment readiness, and staffing the field will need to meet the demands placed before it.
Never were those duties more critical than in this past year of the pandemic.
“The Air Force medical community had to make quick decisions on practices that would affect all our patient populations,” CMSgt Pickett said. “I had to ensure the career field was educated, trained, and could mitigate and lead efforts, as medical care constantly changes.”
Air Force RTs stood ready to help wherever and whenever needed. In one case, several therapists supported New York hospitals during the worst months there, and members of the field also provided FEMA support to California hospitals during their surge in critically ill patients, backfilling the 150% capacity. They were involved in COVID Theater Hospitals tailored to support patient overloads in crucial areas of the country.
As subject matter experts, career field members also took part in several best practice and process improvement events. They worked to standardize COVID-19 treatment plans and operating procedures and procure necessary equipment, such as high frequency nasal cannulas, to mitigate the shortfall in ventilators.
They worked with Air Force leaders to develop PPE policies aimed at shielding 9.6 million beneficiaries, along with bed expansion/surge plans for each of the Air Force treatment facilities.
“One impressive development that members were involved with was the Transport Isolation System/Negative Pressure Conex,” CMSgt Pickett said. “This is the negative pressure isolation room created for air travel on the military aircraft for contagious patients.”
So far, she says there have been zero Air Force active duty deaths, and fewer than 0.08% of personnel have been hospitalized during the pandemic thanks to these efforts.
At the heart
Throughout it all, CMSgt Pickett says the career field has continued to train therapists via its technical and readiness training programs without a hitch.
“We aligned and flexed our seven training sites to accommodate social distancing requirements and graduated 70 new respiratory therapists, all with certifications and an Associate Degree in Health Sciences,” she said.
CMSgt Pickett notes with pride that hers is the only career field in the Air Force where members graduate with an AS degree. Because they are all either Certified or Registered Respiratory Therapists, they can easily step into service in civilian hospitals when needed. That proved invaluable during the pandemic.
“Providing this kind of support showed our ability to quickly respond to national emergencies,” she said.
There are currently 135 individual career fields in the U.S. Air Force. CMSgt Pickett says having the Respiratory Care Practitioner career field chosen as the 2021 Richard L. Etchberger Team of the Year was beyond exciting for the team and for her personally.
“Words cannot express how proud I am to have served as their career field manager through COVID-19,” she said. “Heroism and bravery take many forms, and our respiratory care practitioners are put in harm’s way every day in one form or another. The members of this career field represent the professionalism, technical expertise, and leadership of all airmen. We are here for our patients, always at the heart of patient care.”
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