Meet the respiratory therapy students that became the educators

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By: Taeler Kallmerten

Bubbly, free-spirited and stubborn are three words to describe the women of the respiratory therapy team from Texas State University.

Two respiratory therapy students, accompanied by their faculty, were a part of Texas State University’s first inter-professional study abroad program in Nicaragua.

Initially, the respiratory therapy team was not going, but clinical assistant professor Sharon Armstead and her two senior students Veronica Richardson and Amber Hazelett readily accepted the invitation from the trip’s lead faculty member, Marylyn Kajs-Wyllie. 

There are few countries that have a specialized role for respiratory care and Nicaragua is not one of them. Like the majority of the world, Nicaragua’s respiratory care is practiced by standard physicians and nurses.

This was a challenge for Armstead, Richardson and Hazelett. Instead of spending most of their time in the community clinics, Armstead and her team focused on giving seminars about respiratory care in local public hospitals.

As Armstead set up her MacBook to give a seminar, 12 nurses wearing white uniforms sat watching intently. The seminar took place in the cafeteria of the hospital and many employees passing by joined the lecture as they ate their breakfast. Richardson and Hazelett passed out brochures amongst the nurses, so they could follow along in the demonstration.

“I love to educate as I go,” said Armstead. “Not only do we learn from the community, but they learn from what we offer in education.” 

Through one seminar Armstead said she completely changed the way one hospital gave a nebulizer treatment.

“They were giving the nebulizer treatment without a mask or a mouth piece and the neb was just going out into the air,” said Armstead. “Until we showed them the proper way to use a nebulizer, they did not know.”

After educating healthcare providers in the hospital for two days, Armstead said it is important to recognize the hospitals are not wrong in their methods of respiratory care, but they are just different. 

Nicaragua respiratory isuues
Infographic of respiratory issues in Nicaragua. Graphic by Monica Grice.  

The work is personal

The irony of the respiratory therapy team is that all three women have asthma themselves.

Hazelett, a respiratory therapy major, said her asthma gives her the ability to empathize with her patients because she knows their pain firsthand.

“Growing up sometimes people would tell me, ‘there’s not actually something wrong with you,’ or ‘no, you can breathe just relax,’” said Hazelett. “I know that these people really cannot breathe.”

Hazelett said she understands that those who do not have asthma sometimes think asthmatics are making up their medical condition.

“Just because it can’t be seen on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not going on on the inside,” she said.

The first day outside of the hotel in Nicaragua required long hikes to get from home to home and Richardson constantly checked on Armstead’s breathing and reminded her to use her inhaler.

The family dynamic of taking care of each other was the anchor that held the respiratory therapy team together.

Richardson said having Armstead as a professor has made her more confident in her abilities as a respiratory therapist.

Richardson said she had an intense discussion with a doctor in Nicaragua about whether a patient’s lung problems were asthma related.

“I did a full chest assessment and I was right that there was something wrong with the patient’s lungs,” said Richardson. “In my mind, there was that split moment where I thought what if I’m wrong; then my confidence came back and I was like I know I’m right.”

As Richardson explained how Armstead’s teaching has impacted her, Armstead, who was sitting next to her, began crying, but with a smile on her face.

“I wanted them to see that in these countries, they don’t have RT, but what we can do is to promote our profession and to educate,” said Armstead.

Richardson and Hazelett will graduate in May. While Richardson has just finished her internship in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. David’s North, Hazelett has begun her night shifts at her internship. Richardson plans to eventually practice respiratory therapy abroad and Hazelett plans to get her masters degree and eventually teach at her alma mater, Texas State University. 

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