Did I Mention I was a Respiratory Therapist?

Did I mention the time I was a professional respiratory therapist? My girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend’s father heard that I liked to write. He had an idea for a novel based on his life experience as a doctor but for several reasons he couldn’t write it himself. So he called me, introduced himself, explained the situation and asked if I would like to write it. It would involve pretending to be a respiratory therapist and working in a hospital for a week so I could see what was really going on behind the scenes. He would also pay me for my time. Of course I said yes.

Why couldn’t this man write it himself? Several reasons:

A) He was a prominent doctor in perhaps the most famous hospital in the country. He didn’t want to risk exposing his position but he still wanted the word out.
B) He didn’t think he had any ability as a writer. This is never the case. Everyone can tell their story. But if someone says “I can’t do this but I’m willing to pay you to do it” then who am I to disagree?
C) He was busy. He had patients all day long and he was happy with the knowledge that he was a great doctor. Writing a book would interfere with his time he spent helping patients.
D) And, perhaps more importantly he was dying and nobody knew that. Not even his son who had indirectly introduced us. I was to tell no one, he said, because he had not even told his wife and family yet. He was hoping the book would make some money and that this money would help take care of his family after he was gone. I didn’t understand the disease he was dying from. It’s the opposite of leukemia, he said. Instead of effecting the white cells like leukemia does, my illness kills the red cells. I have somewhere between six and twelve months to live, he told me.

So I arranged to take a week off of work, and stay in a small hotel near where the doctor lived and worked. He was upset at the cavalier way in which doctors and nurses treated their patients in his hospital. He felt the medical industry had transformed from an industry where people helped people to an industry where professionals milked their patients dry of all of their money while providing inadequate care. Again, the hospital he was at wasn’t a small facility but one of the most major and important facilities in the country. The type of hospital people say they are going to when they want to convince everyone else that they are receiving the best possible care for their ills and nothing was being left to chance. And I was going to be a respiratory therapist there for a week.

The first day he picked me up at the hotel and we ate at an IHOP while he explained the basics. I was going to pretend I was finishing up training as a respiratory therapist and wanted to see what it was like to work in a hospital. Another respiratory therapist, a woman named Jenny, was in on what I was doing and would show me the ropes for the week. She was good friends with the doctor and agreed with him that the medical industry she had signed up for was not what she thought it was.

And there it was. I spent the week going from room to room, often to check in with Jenny on people who were critically ill (hence their need for someone to come in and check that they were breathing ok). I was hardly ever on my own although occasionally I would help old people walk up and down their hallways until they were out of breath. In the lounge where the doctors and nurses relaxed I would hear all the clichéd stories. Doctors describing their new cars while flirting with nurses, the other respiratory therapists sharing the occasional horror story about how the one time that tracheotomy was botched, the tube removed and the hole never covered up, suffocating the patient. But I didn’t see anything grossly negligent (other than allowing me to wander in and out of patients rooms, checking their equipment to make sure everything was A-ok).

What I did notice above all else was my breath. I never really thought about the concept of “breathing” before. It just sort of happens. But when I was walking these old people up and down the hallways, listening carefully as their breath became more and more shallow to the point where it was non-existent, or when I was checking on people’s equipment, where the sounds of artificial breath filled up an entire room until it seemed every piece of equipment was breathing and keeping the patient alive, I became painfully aware of how I was breathing.

I was a horrible breather!

I realized how shallow my own breaths were most of the time. Sometimes I even felt like I was gasping for air along with the patients.

Breathing just sort of happens. We can’t do anything about it. Our bodies do it with or without us. Take a moment to breathe deeply three times and really notice the breath. Who is doing it? You? Your body? Notice it. Notice the end of the breath when you exhale, that brief little moment of empty space before your entire body does a u-turn and forces oxygen back into it. We can’t stop breathing but what’s going on in our head effects how we breathe. What’s slowing the breath down? If you’re scared, your breath changes . If you are sad or happy, your breath changes. What’s changing the rate of your breath right now? You? Notice it some more and breathe deeply. Three breaths.

All of the self-help books in the world will never help you if you can’t breathe. And if you just take the time to notice your breath occasionally, I really think you’ll never need any of the self-help books out there. Just do it again. Three deep breaths. Watch them. My New Year’s resolution this year is to pay attention to my breathing. It can’t be that hard. Can it?

So my week ended and I felt qualified to speak intelligently about respiratory therapy and the entire medical industry. I had an idea for a plot, wherein someone fools everyone into believing he’s a doctor when he’s not, but in doing so underlines the ridiculousness of the entire industry. But my friend, the doctor, had an alternative idea where the character based on his was having this torrid affair with the “Jenny” character. I didn’t like it and I had a hard time writing someone else’s ideas.

But unfortunately it didn’t matter. I suddenly became unable to type. I got what I thought was a severe case of Carpal-Tunnel Syndrom where the nerves going into the hand get inflamed whenever you try to type. It’s a repetitive stress disorder. I went to a chiropractor, took pain medication, did acupuncture but nothing helped. The doctor kept calling me to see if I had begun writing but I couldn’t type at all. The pain was too excruciating. Eventually he stopped calling me. There was nothing I could do. He thought I needed surgery on my hands but I didn’t want to do that. Even when he stopped calling me, whenever I looked at the keyboard my hands would start to hurt. The only way I could type out emails or do the computer programming that was my job at the time was to type by holding two pencils and using the erasers to tap on the keys. But I couldn’t write a novel that way.

A few months later my girlfriend told me that the doctor had passed away. He had succumbed to that disease that was like the reverse of leukemia. Within a week I was able to type again.

  • pjc

    Loved it! I love any story involving “normal” people pretending to medical professionals. From what I’ve been told, medical training involves a great many “fake it till you make it” experiences (perhaps much like being an entrepreneur). Nice that you got a taste of that.

  • Great story. I was a corpsman in the Navy and did a lot of watching people breath, ect. So, what happened to the book?

  • @pjc, I really wonder what profession requires multi-year professional training. Most of education (including elementary school) is a scam.

    @Steve, I bet you have some great stories. Ultimately, I never did the book. Maybe some day.

  • Jay

    I really enjoyed your story. I am a Respiratory Therapist, have been for some 24 years. The health care industry I work in now is not the industry I started in. While there are many wonderful, dedicated, caring healthcare professionals from all disciplines, there are the few who are simply there to make a buck; and those few ruin it for the rest. Like the doctor, I used to think that people needed to know, would want to know, what really goes on in the hospital setting. I also thought of writing a book to expose the ills of the healthcare industry. I no longer believe people want to know.
    I used to tell friends and family some of the things that really go on, and was suprised at the response I recieved. Mostly it was disbelief or hostility. “My doctor would never do that!”, “Well maybe that goes on at the crap hospital you work at, but MY hospital is great!!”, “You’re lying!” Those were generally the type of responses I recieved.
    At first I was surprised, but over time I realized that going to the hospital is a scary thing. You, or your most precious loved one, are sick or injured; and you have to trust that very life to a group of strangers, hoping that they know and care about what they’re doing. The thought that these strangers may be fallable, incompetent; or worse, simply in it to make a buck off of you or your loved ones suffering, is too much for most to bear. Occasionally the masses find someone who really screws up and sues the pants off of them; but for the most part people want to believe that everyone at the hospital has their best interest at heart, and doesn’t simply think of them as the pneumonia in room 234.
    It’s rather like the parable of the emporer’s new clothes. Most people want to believe that the clothes exist, and if they strain hard enough that they too will really be able to see them. Every now and then, it becomes apparent that someone we thought had their clothes on is naked, and we punish the snot out of them. I often wonder if it’s not so much for the medical offense as it is the destruction of the illusion that makes people feel better and more secure.
    I gave up on the idea of a book. Noone would read it.

    • JaneyB

      Just read your post, thanks to a back link from James’ current post…..

      I appreciate your skepticism but even if most people don’t want to know, some people need to know. Health care reform is coming to the US over the next decade starting with the baby steps of Obamacare. Scrutiny of the system will only increase and new ideas are needed. The more on-the-ground information, the better.

      Writing a book would probably be a discouraging experience…but a blog would work and you’d get a lot of participation from others with similar experiences. There’s a community of people out there who have ideals and frustrations just like you – and they would read it  (and help write it). They need to know they are not alone.

      A blog is just the thing, Jay. Just go to WordPress.com (or another blogging site) and you can have something up in minutes. Reply here with its new address and start writing (using James’ writing tips). Possible blog names: “I Hate my HMO”….thousands of people probably type that into google every day!

  • Priapism

    Tried to find your email to send you a comment. I disagree with you on investing (your thoughts on Gold etc) but much of what you write in terms of real life I agree with. BTW, Mish apparently is a complete ass. Refer to him as Mike “Miss” Shedlock since he completely missed the huge rally in stocks.

  • Steven Goff

    Did I mention I posses (expired now but did at one time) the credentials and the skills to be a barber?…..lol…I do!……I cut hair for 4 years.

  • Patrick M.

    Hi James — I truly enjoy reading your blog and have been combing through the archives during spare moments at work over the last couple of weeks. Brilliant stuff, and it’s very apparent how much you are growing as a writer (old stuff like this is very good, but the newest stuff you are posting now is even moreso).

    Just a quick note to pay attention to the difference between “effect” and “affect”… as far as I can tell you don’t really make a habit of this mistake, but I noticed it twice in this post so I thought I would leave you a brief message. Hopefully you don’t take offense!

  • Patrick M.

    Hi James — I truly enjoy reading your blog and have been combing through the archives during spare moments at work over the last couple of weeks. Brilliant stuff, and it’s very apparent how much you are growing as a writer (old stuff like this is very good, but the newest stuff you are posting now is even moreso).

    Just a quick note to pay attention to the difference between “effect” and “affect”… as far as I can tell you don’t really make a habit of this mistake, but I noticed it twice in this post so I thought I would leave you a brief message. Hopefully you don’t take offense!