Woman standing in the woods in winter taking a deep breath.

Take a deep breath. Exhale.

For most of us, breathing isn’t a function we think much about. We simply just breathe in and breathe out. Occasionally we might think about taking deep breaths when we’re stressed or anxious and that’s the extent of it. Not everyone is lucky enough to breathe effortlessly, though. This is where respiratory therapy comes in.

What is Respiratory Therapy?

Put simply, respiratory therapy helps people who have trouble breathing. This could be caused by asthma, a lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, emphysema or infectious diseases like COVID-19. Anyone with these conditions will typically work with a respiratory therapist (RT).

Specially trained in pulmonary medicine, RTs work with your doctor and medical team to provide a wide array of therapy. After evaluating your breathing and going over your medical history, an RT will recommend a treatment or therapy. At Island Health, our RTs work closely with our providers to create and monitor a tailor-made therapy program. This could include:

  • Oxygen therapy and monitoring
  • Secretion clearance techniques like Chest Physiotherapy (CPT) and positive expiratory pressure therapy devices (PEP)
  • Medication including inhalers or nebulizers that deliver the medicine through a mist or dry powder directly to the lungs
  • Lung exercises such as incentive spirometry and breathing techniques
  • Breath monitoring and management like mechanical ventilation
  • Pulmonary diagnostics such as pulmonary function test

We also have critical care RTs, who work in the intensive care unit and the emergency room with the most severe cases. Additionally we have certified pulmonary function technologists who can conducting tests to help determine if any pulmonary abnormalities are present.

What is a Pulmonary Function Test (PFT)?

A PFT assesses the power of your lungs by measuring how much air you can inhale and exhale. Anyone who has a chronic lung problem or who is a smoking history should get a PFT. The test is painless and generally takes 45-60 minutes to perform. Your primary care provider can order the test for you.

Is Pulmonary Rehabilitation For You?

You may need pulmonary rehab if you have a lung disease (such as COPD or pulmonary fibrosis) and your shortness of breath is preventing you from performing daily activities.

Pulmonary rehab programs are comprised of a multi-disciplinary team that includes a medical doctor, registered nurse, RRT, exercise physiologist and a registered dietician, who all work to help you improve your lung function through exercise, education and support. During rehab, your breathing and heart rate are always monitored and you can use oxygen, if needed.

Island Health Director of Cardiopulmonary Services Sarah Edwards, RRT, CPFT, MPH, says pulmonary rehab can be life-changing.

“One of the most poignant benefits to our patients is a sense of community, that they are not alone in this,” she said.

In addition to exercises like walking on a treadmill or weight training, patients learn about nutrition and their own physiology. Patients learn breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or pursed-lip breathing. And they can get emotional support for the very real challenges of anxiety and depression that often accompany their disease.

“We love seeing our patients literally breathe new life when they’re in our program,” Edwards said.


If you have a lung-related condition, ask your physician if a pulmonary rehab program is right for you. For more information about the Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Island Health, visit www.islandhealth.org/pulmonary or call 360.299.4242.

Island Pulmonology is Island Health’s newest specialty clinic. They offer comprehensive care for lung and respiratory system diseases and disorders. Our goal is to help you have the best quality of life by helping you manage and treat your symptoms. Island Pulmonology’s physicians are now accepting referrals from primary care and other specialties. Patients may also call directly to request an appointment in Anacortes by calling 360.299.4273.

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