Helping Newborns Breathe: Why I Chose Respiratory Therapy in the NICU

By Stephanie Cunningham, RN, RRT
Methodist Dallas Medical Center

Life is full of surprises. That’s certainly true for my career. For 28 years I’ve worked as a respiratory therapist, mostly in the neonatal intensive care unit at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. There I fell in love with helping newborns breathe.

As long as I can remember, even as a child, I wanted to be a nurse. My grandfather had severe emphysema, and that was my first experience with breathing problems. In high school, I participated in a program that allowed me to tour every department in the hospital, so I got a taste of patient care from all angles. When I graduated from high school, I saw a brochure on respiratory therapy. It got my attention, perhaps because I remembered my grandfather’s experience. That’s when I decided to become an RT.

Over the years, my love for bedside care grew. I like working with patients and families, especially working with equipment such as the ventilator to help patients get well. I began working in the NICU and realized I had found my niche. I’ve always liked challenges, and when we have a very sick premature baby, we develop an individualized care plan that often includes using different ventilator settings to help the baby’s lungs improve.

Methodist Dallas has also given me the opportunity to take my RT skills in the NICU beyond the bedside as part of the neonatal transport team. During that time, it was a life-changing experience to be a key member of the care team responsible for safely moving a sick baby from a referral hospital in east Texas to the NICU at Methodist Dallas via the CareFlite helicopter.

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with new RTs coming into the field. My advice to them is simple and straightforward.

  • Ask questions to understand about the type of treatments you will be administering to your patients so you can continually learn. Education is wonderful, but students learn with experience. Only experience will help you develop a deeper understanding of why a particular procedure is used for a specific circumstance.
  • Seek out a mentor to guide you as you develop your daily skills. Conversely, as an experienced RT, it’s rewarding to mentor others. As they say, teaching strengthens and confirms good habits.

Why have I thrived as an RT for 28 years? It’s the patients. It’s making a difference in their lives time and time again. I remember one particular baby and her parents with whom I developed a close connection. The baby was in the hospital for several months. When she was finally able to go home, even though she left on oxygen, we all felt extremely rewarded. Over the years, she had many ups and downs with respiratory issues. Today, she’s almost 20 years old and has a bright future. It’s memories like this that reinforce why I became an RT. The career decision I made 28 years ago was the right one.

Ready for a bright move into respiratory therapy? Then it’s time to choose Methodist Health System. Learn more by visiting

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