For Ms Zhuang Wen Xi, a senior respiratory therapist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), there is something very rewarding about helping a critically ill person breathe — a function most of us often take for granted.

Nothing highlighted this more than in November last year when she was at an overseas conference and her friend suffered a cardiac arrest. After the initial panic and fear, Ms Zhuang’s professional instincts kicked in.

She and many other respiratory therapists took turns performing life-sustaining cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for 30 minutes to keep her friend alive.

Says Ms Zhuang: “Thank God we were in a room full of respiratory therapists who knew what to do and who were all so willing to jump in and help. She survived the episode and is doing very well now. It really showcased how the knowledge we have is a truly life-saving skill.”

Apart from resuscitation work, the role of a respiratory therapist spans the health-care spectrum from critical to chronic care.

She explains: “As a respiratory therapist, I assist doctors in helping people breathe via mechanical means. Because of various health conditions or accidents, some patients have to rely on a breathing or tracheostomy tube to help them breathe.”

The tracheostomy tube is inserted into the airway via the neck, and is attached to a ventilator that assists patients in breathing. Apart from helping doctors in the precise procedures of inserting the tracheostomy tubes down the airway into the lungs, Ms Zhuang also manages the ventilation (or air flow) for patients, assesses their breathing needs and decides the best form of breathing apparatus to use.

She adds: “Simply put, we work with machines to relieve the work of breathing for the patient.

“Other important roles include helping to wean ventilator-dependent patients off their breathing apparatus, and to educate both patient and caregivers on how to take care of the latter if he or she has to go home with a ventilator.”

Apart from working with patients in a critical-care setting in the intensive care units, Ms Zhuang also uses non-invasive methods to improve breathing, such as oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation, in
patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, neuromuscular diseases, obstructive sleep apnea and asthma.

Her interest in the job was piqued when she was looking for health-care-related degree programmes after finishing junior college.

“When I read in the papers that SGH was offering a four-year scholarship for respiratory therapists, I did some research and was attracted to the job because it was dynamic, wide-ranging and multi-disciplinary.”

Respiratory therapists deal with acute and critical care as well as long-term care.

One of the most satisfying aspects of her job is working with a team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and speech therapists to help patients recover as much mobility and function as possible, despite their breathing difficulties.

She says: “Someone who is struggling for breath will feel more comfortable and less anxious when they are helped to take in air. Every breath helps. It can make a difference between being bedbound and being able to walk a few steps, move about or even talk and eat — these abilities help a patient feel able, alive and empowered.”

Reflecting on her work, Ms Zhuang recalls the “life-changing” moment during the overseas conference last November. “At some point,” she says, “I think many of us reach a plateau and go about our work on auto-pilot mode; we don't really think about the bigger picture of how we are contributing.

“That episode reinforced the meaning of my job — that it is truly an amazing thing to be part of a team that brings people back from the brink of death.”