For Associate Professor John Rutkowski, respiratory therapy’s not only a career, but a way of life. He’s worked in the field for 44 years as a therapist, hospital manager, teacher and community activist.
“My first experience with the field was when my father had heart trouble while I was still in high school,” he recalls. After graduating, Rutkowski took a part-time job at a local hospital working as an inhalation therapy technician.
“In those days, you didn’t have to have a degree,” says Rutkowski. “You learned on the job.” He eventually decided to attend St. Joseph Hospital in Lancaster and York College of Pennsylvania. “Most of the class was already working on the job and felt the only way to get better at it was to get some formal education.” After earning his Associate of Science degree, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College, MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University and MPA from Seton Hall University.
The job of a respiratory therapist, he says, has many rewards as you get to see the difference you can make in a person’s life.
“When I was still in school, I remember this frail lady in her 70s who had severe emphysema,” he recalls. “My fellow students and I would take her for walks with the ventilator so she could move around. She really enjoyed that. Some of the patients we worked with felt so desperate and nonfunctional that even walking 50 or 60 feet was a tremendous experience.”
He says the most challenging patients were those with severe asthma. “They just kept struggling and struggling and sometimes you’d be there for hours at a time before the medication was effective and you coached them to breathe more efficiently,” he says. “Most of the time it’s just the respiratory therapist and the family in the room.”
A strong believer in the power of community and professional service, his work in those areas contributed to changing school policy in the state so students with asthma could carry their own medications to use when needed. In his spare time, he volunteers with the Pediatric and Adult Asthma Coalition in New Jersey and the American Lung Association. He has also provided testimony at Environmental Protection Agency hearings on clean air legislation.
Respiratory therapy, notes Rutkowski, can be a difficult field, but it’s also one where colleagues support each other.
“As a profession, we have an extensive network of colleagues always ready to help each other across the state, the nation and internationally.”