Career Enrichment: Reaching Out to Children

Young RT Volunteers

School has either started or is about to start for children all across the country, and thanks to RT volunteers, many of these students will be learning more about lung health during the 2018-2019 school year.

Therapists who take the time to plan these visits and share their expertise with school children believe the students aren’t the only ones who benefit — they say these volunteer activities do wonders to make their RT careers more rewarding as well.

Little minds love to learn

Monica Simko, BSRC, RRT, has been going out to elementary and high schools for a number of years now. In K-3 classrooms she hands out coffee stirrers and regular straws to show the students the difference between breathing with healthy and unhealthy lungs, and she also has the students make their own ‘body’ using a paper bag as the thorax, paper towel holder as the esophagus, and straws as the airways, with plastic snack bags on the ends to represent the lungs and a heart.

“The kids love this,” Simko said.

She took this activity into her own daughter’s kindergarten class a few years ago and says she still hears from her daughter’s friends and their parents about how much the children enjoyed it.

“I love seeing students participating in our activities and sparking interest in a career or profession they had no idea even existed,” Simko said.

Making sure more children know about the profession is something Meagen Laviolette, RRT, loves doing too. She has volunteered to present during a Career Connections day for grades K-5 at the school her children attend and has centered her talk on asthma.

“Because asthma is so prevalent, I thought it would be beneficial to teach the children what it feels like to breathe with asthma and more importantly how to help their friends in an emergency, using an example of running around with a friend on the playground when they suddenly have trouble breathing,” she said.

She teaches the children about rescue inhalers and she also brings in recordings of different types of wheezing and lets them practice listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope.

“The most rewarding part is interacting with the children while teaching them about my passion, which is also a vital portion of their health,” said Laviolette, who is from New Hampshire. “The children surprisingly get very engaged and ask some very good questions. These little minds are eager to learn.”

Seeding the future generation of RTs

Over the past four years, Beth Austin, BS, RRT, RRT-ACCS, has traveled to 11 area high schools along with one or two other RTs to educate students in more than 20 classes about the respiratory care profession.

“Each year we are asked back by more and more teachers, who find the program we present invaluable to their students,” said the Delaware RT.

She and her colleagues hold the students’ attention through interactive activities using everything from an intubation head to pig lungs, and they provide great information about the diseases RTs treat.

Austin says she’s developed a passion for introducing the field of respiratory care to these students and she loves seeing students come through the local RT program who first learned about it during one of her visits.

“I didn’t know what respiratory was when I went to high school and wish that someone had come to speak to my class and share such a special field with us,” she said. ”I want to do that for our future therapists.”

Monique Steffani, MS, RRT, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, covers a range of topics during her visits to middle and high school classes in her California community.

“I have spent time providing education about cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD, and abstaining from smoking/vaping,” she said.

She begins with CF and then works her way down to smoking to educate the students about the disease processes that can impact their lungs.

She always brings a set of diseased lungs along with her, which she says serve to clue the students in really fast about the damage that smoking can do.

“The best takeaways I have experienced are knowing I’ve given students on the cusp of adulthood, knowledge to make better choices about their health, ideas on how to support friends and family with CF, asthma, or COPD, and insight into the respiratory care field — one that many of them had never heard of prior to my interaction with them,” she said.

A few of those students have even asked for her contact information so she can guide them through the process of choosing the right classes and finding the right schools to embark on their own careers in RT.

Meeting unmet needs

Sue Davis, MEd, RRT, RRT-NPS, says she’s enjoyed getting involved in an annual service learning project sponsored by her hospital over the past eight years to deliver smoking prevention information to fifth graders.

“We meet with the teachers to discuss the learning plan and then incorporate fun physical activities to help the kids learn about the effects of smoking, including vaping,” said the Louisiana RT. “We go back for an assessment visit to see if the kids remembered what we taught.”

They bring pig lungs in to help the students visualize what smoking does to the lungs as well, and they recently expanded the program to encompass high school students with learning disabilities too.

“This group is often overlooked in health education,” said Davis. ”We worked with the teacher to determine the level of learning for this group and incorporated videos and activities as well. It was a resounding success.”

Belinda Huffman, BS, RRT, CPFT, is working through her local Asthma Alliance in Ohio to bring asthma education to children in grades third through fifth — and their parents as well.

“I train local college nursing and respiratory therapist students in the American Lung Association’s Open Airways for Schools program,” said Huffman. ”The college students attend the schools for their fall curriculum to provide 45-minute asthma education sessions for students diagnosed with asthma.”

The six-session curriculum is delivered over a five-week period.

Huffman then partners with a local community health worker to provide asthma education to the parents of these children. A screening tool is used to determine which families qualify for in-home visits.

“We provide food, gift cards, and green cleaning buckets for those who attend, and mattress covers, vacuums, and furnace filters for in-home visits,” she said.

Those who need help with food, air conditioning, legal aid, jobs, etc., are provided with additional resources as well.

“It is very rewarding to observe how your program and efforts improve the lives of children living with asthma, especially when addressing the social determinants of health needs,” Huffman said.

She says it’s sometimes hard to know how these families can deal with their child’s asthma when they don’t even know where their next meal is coming from, and she appreciates the chance this program has given her to make a difference.