How I Went from Bedside RT to a Leadership Position in the AHA

Eileen Censullo
Censullo currently serves as the Director of Science for Emergency Cardiovascular Care at the American Heart Association.

As director of science for emergency cardiovascular care (ECC) at the American Heart Association (AHA), every program and product out of the AHA has to come by Eileen Censullo, MBA, RRT, and her team first to make sure it is accurate and following AHA guidelines. The AARC member shares the journey she took to get this national leadership role in this Q&A —

When and why did you decide to become a respiratory therapist and where did you get your RT degree?

I decided to become a respiratory therapist when I was 16 and I had an emergency open appendectomy done. I had to stay for a week. It was done in July, and while I was there the air conditioner broke in my room and it triggered an asthma attack. I had not had an issue with my asthma since I was about five or so. I had it pretty bad when I was younger.

Since I was pretty sick with my asthma and getting Q4 treatments, I spent a lot of time talking to the therapists and asking them about what they did. I found it fascinating. I was hooked. I started looking at where I could go to school and went to meet Bill Galvin at Gwynedd Mercy College — now Gwynedd Mercy University — and that was it. I toured Fitzgerald Mercy on October 30, 1985, the same hospital where I had my appendix out on the same day Sylvia Seegrist killed three people and wounded seven others at the shopping mall in Springfield, and I watched the therapists save lives alongside the physicians and nurses.

I turned to my parents and said, “Yup, this is for me.” I was accepted in my junior year and was so excited!

How long did you work as a traditional RT and what did you most like about that role?

I went to Taylor Hospital in 1988 as a certified respiratory technician while I was still in school at Gwynedd finishing my program, and didn’t leave until 2007. I became charge therapist in 1992, worked the floors, and helped to open pulmonary rehab in 1995 and started doing patient assessments. I finally became department manager in 1997.

I started the system wide asthma camp for Crozer Keystone because my daughter Amanda also has asthma. One day while dropping her off at kindergarten, one of her classmates asked me when she was not going to be sick anymore because she goes to the school nurse every day. I thought, “hmm, we not only have to educate kids with asthma but their friends.” So I also started going to schools in the three school districts around Taylor and doing A is for Asthma, which is a program from the American Lung Association, and also Open Airways for the school-aged kids with asthma.

But what I loved most about the 20 years at Taylor Hospital were the friends I made there. I grew up there and learned a lot about life, and since I started on night shift, I learned how to work alone and take care of the patients, think outside the box, and utilize the skills I learned at Gwynedd Mercy and the clinical sites they sent us to. Our medical directors were also extremely supportive of allowing us to provide input and make decisions and give suggestions with them in a team environment. Nurses and respiratory worked extremely well together and I loved that. It was hard to leave Taylor.

What did you do next?

After leaving Taylor Hospital, I opened up Kindred Hospital-Havertown, where running quality was a day-to-day expectation, along with making sure that all of your reports were up-to-date. After Kindred, I went to DSG, which is Document Solutions Group, in Malvern, PA. I had decided to leave respiratory for an opportunity to branch out and get into the clinical trial world, and never regretted this decision.

I worked with amazing people and learned new lifelong skills that I still use — Coding, Edit Specs, Extreme Multi-Tasking, and Real Project Management, to name a few. I was running 16 different clinical trials when I left.

The opportunity came about because I had finished my MBA in health administration at Eastern University and I was looking for a company where, even if I didn’t stay in the position I was hired into, I could move around until I found the right fit for me and the organization.

What was your first position at the AHA?

The American Heart Association had a position posted for vice president of quality for Great Rivers Affiliate, which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. I still kept my weekend position at Phoenixville Hospital, which I started in 2002 while I was at Taylor Hospital. So in all my years of being a respiratory therapist, I have never given up patient care. I still work one weekend shift a month at Phoenixville and am celebrating 15 years there this year.

Today you are the AHA’s director of science for emergency cardiovascular care. Tell us a little about this position and what it entails.

I transitioned to this national position in July of 2016. I am responsible for working with our national ECC Committee, Subcommittees, and the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation to oversee and support the ECC and CPR knowledge discovery and translation processes that lead to our AHA ECC Guidelines and scientific statements.

I am also responsible for the scientific oversight of our ECC products and programs while also overseeing our efforts to collaborate, coordinate, and integrate our resuscitation systems of care priorities and projects with appropriate AHA colleagues such as Advocacy, Quality, and Health IT, to maximize our impact on our mission of doubling cardiac arrest survival.

My job is to work with the physician volunteers around the world who are constantly working on resuscitation and looking at the science behind it to see if any of our products or programs need to be updated. I also manage a team of Science Medicine Advisors, who are AHA employees that assist with product and program review.

Has your RT background helped you in your work at the AHA?

Yes, going to this role has been like coming back home to resuscitation full time for me. All day long, I talk resuscitation or CPR. My job, and that of our entire department, is how can we ensure that no one dies of cardiac arrest and what programs and products can we put out to make that happen. As respiratory therapists, we try to save every life that comes in with a cardiac arrest. Now I’m trying to make sure cardiac arrest doesn’t happen.

What advice do you have for other RTs who might see themselves rising to a leadership position in a health care organization such as the AHA?

Well, I am always looking to learn. After my Master’s, I went and got my Blackbelt in Lean Six Sigma. I am now studying for my Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality, or CPHQ. I never want to stop learning.

When I talk to the new students in Pennsylvania, the first thing I tell them is, don’t just read an order and follow it. Think, why? Especially in the ICU. And if you don’t think it is right, question it. Now of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to do that, but doctors will come to respect that you care about their patients as much as they do and only want what is best for them. I always say, ‘I have a license to protect,’ and even before licensure, I took care of everyone like they were my own parent. Remember that.

There are a lot of different branches in the AHA — Community CPR, Quality, Advocacy, Community Health — where respiratory therapists can all play an important part. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me!