It's National Respiratory Care Appreciation Week, which provides patients the chance to thank respiratory therapists at the Billings Clinic.
These therapists help patients dealing with trauma, those with chronic breathing problems and others.
And while the loss of breath may seem frightening, few understand the fear better than cystic fibrosis patient Laura Smith.
"Throughout your life, you are almost expecting to die," Smith said. "Any type of sniffle, anything like the flu, it could literally end our lives."
Smith's condition, which she was born with, makes it difficult for her lungs to break down mucus, which often causes her trouble breathing. Each year, she has to do a few multi-week hospital checkups to make sure that her breathing is on track.
"I like to say I've lived a normal life, but it's always in the back of your mind," Smith said. "Just the questions of, 'Am I going to live the life I want to?'"
Smith, 41, said she is grateful for the life she's lived, one that she knows could have been cut short due to her condition. Those 41 years haven't come without their ups and downs.
“This past February I had a pretty close call,” Smith said. “I was in the ICU for eight days."
Her close call earlier this year had Smith battling for her life, but thankfully the respiratory therapists came to her rescue.
“I didn’t remember anything, but the first people I remember being there for me were the RTs,” Smith said.
Those therapists are the same ones who help her throughout the year at her checkups, and they understand just how important their job is in Smith's life, as well as many others.
“If you’re not breathing, you’re not living," respiratory therapist Kacie Chatwood said. "And oftentimes patients need us to breathe for them."
Chatwood said their job comes with stress, but that no time was more crucial for respiratory therapists than in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I still get emotional thinking about it. They closed those doors in the ICU separating the COVID patients and the non-COVID patients and then our lives were never the same," Chatwood said. "We said to our patients, 'Your family may not be able to be here for you, but we've got you.'"
Those tough days still burn in the minds of many. Fellow respiratory therapist Deja Fuson shares the same recollection of a busy time they'll never forget.
"Thinking back to these rooms in the ICU, we were doubled up two patients to a room on ventilators," Fuson said. "I always tell people I wish I would've gone home and journaled after a shift, but I'm glad I didn't because the PTSD is real."
Fuson said those days help make the good ones even more rewarding.
"After COVID, we were able to meet the families again and there was more light at the end of the tunnel," Fuson said. "It stopped being as sad and more positive and I think we're thankful for that."
But many did walk away from the profession following the pandemic. Billings Clinic said respiratory therapists are needed now more than ever before and that there are local programs in Great Falls, Missoula and Casper, Wyoming, with clinicals that are able to be completed in Billings.
Both Chatwood and Fuson said that even though it is a bit of a thankless job, the relationships with patients are what make it rewarding.
“We help patients from their first breath until their last," Chatwood said. "Often times we’ve been working in the same hospital or region long enough that we get to build these relations. I think that's the best part."
It's an underappreciated job, but not in the eyes of many patients like Smith.
“I cannot express how much I love the RT team here," Smith said. "They don’t get recognized enough. It’s really hard to describe to people that don’t have to go through this, how much it means to have someone you know there."