An episode of “Gray’s Anatomy” isn’t complete without some high drama in an emergency department, the ICU, an operating room or possibly on the side of a mountain or in the middle of a remote highway.
The individuals performing the medical miracles are typically handsome doctors and beautiful nurses. Rarely is the hero or heroine a respiratory therapist, said Bill Cornelius, chairman of the Temple College Respiratory Therapy Department.
“In the real world we would be there,” Cornelius said.
Currently, the TC respiratory program has 23 students, 10 in the sophomore class and 13 in the freshmen class. The department could handle more, but not all that many people know what a respiratory therapist does.
“Our field has always had an identity crisis,” he said.
Overlooked or not, Cornelius has been educating future respiratory therapists at TC since 1975.
On Saturday, at the TC commencement ceremony at the Bell County Expo Center, Cornelius will be recognized for his excellence in teaching with the 2017 Barnhart Teacher of the Year Award.
The award is named in honor of Claudia and W.T. Barnhart, who established an endowment fund in 1988 for the annual recognition. The recipient receives a $2,000 cash award.
Cornelius was in the first graduating class of respiratory therapists at Southwest Texas State, and while in school and after graduating, he worked in the respiratory therapy department at Breckenridge Hospital.
While at Breckenridge he learned of three teaching positions in the respiratory care department at TC. Cornelius and two others from the hospital were hired to fill the slots.
“I had an associate’s degree and no credentials, I had nothing,” he said.
Credentials didn’t exist and hospitals then were staffed by people with on-the-job training.
Most of the respiratory therapy students at TC have had previous careers, which is similar to the class Cornelius was in at Texas State.
He found at that time that most of the people he worked with weren’t interested in what they were doing and he believed he could make a difference and grow the profession if he was on the education side of the training.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do over these many years,” Cornelius said.
The department holds a monthly information session for prospective students. It lasts from 9 a.m. to noon, with a tour of Scott & White in the afternoon.
“It’s long because we want people to understand what we’re about,” he said.
Most of the people who show up for the information sessions are there because they have had a connection with someone who has had respiratory problems.
“You never think about breathing, unless you have a problem and then it’s all you can think about,” he said. “There are some people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who are in respiratory distress 24/7.”
“Lungs were meant to breathe one thing, air, that’s it, but we breathe in lots of other things, intentionally for many,” Cornelius said.
The breadth of the things that respiratory therapists do is amazing, Cornelius said.
At St. Joseph’s Hospital in College Station the hyperbaric center is in the middle of the cardio/pulmonary department. Sleep programs are run by pulmonology. In rural hospitals respiratory therapists are doing IVs alongside nurses.
The American Association for Respiratory Therapists has membership sections within the organization that include transport, critical care, pediatrics, neonatal, pulmonary function studies and sleep medicine.
“A lot of us tend to specialize in a particular area,” he said.
Respiratory therapists who work as a generalist in a hospital setting end up doing a lot of different things. There are breathing exercises and different populations of patients, such as those who have ALS or cystic fibrosis.
“If it has to do with breathing we’re involved in it,” Cornelius said.
Many respiratory therapists end up working in critical care.
When Cornelius was in school a two-year program wasn’t consider the best way to get a start on a career, but since being at TC he said he’s become an advocate for the two-year school.
The chairman of the respiratory therapist advisory committee is an attorney who received his respiratory therapist credentials at TC.
“He put himself through SMU Law School by working as a respiratory therapist,” he said.
Others have become physician assistants, physicians, authors and more.
There is a push toward a baccalaureate degree in respiratory therapy.
Medical care in general is getting more complex and the scope of practice has expanded, he said.
A lot of changes in medicine have affected the respiratory therapist, including the medications.
“When I came into the field a pair of pliers and a screwdriver was all that was needed to fix a mechanical ventilator,” he said. “It was just pulleys and gears. Now they’re smarter that you are.”
When not teaching, Cornelius has outside interests that keep him occupied. He is the vice president of the Texas Bamboo Society.
Cornelius likes to fly fish and is a member of the San Gabriel Fly Fishers in Georgetown. He grew up fly fishing in California.
Recently he has taken up bonsai and is a member of the Austin Bonsai Society.