Whitney La had never heard of respiratory therapists prior to her son’s seven-month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital in Springfield. But now that her son, Max, is a healthy and thriving toddler, she’s working toward a degree in the field.
A business entrepreneur and mother of three, Whitney grew close to her son’s team of respiratory therapists during his extended stay at Mercy. Max, who was delivered via an emergency c-section at 25 weeks gestation, weighed just 1.5 pounds at birth. His lungs were severely underdeveloped.
“He was born so early, I didn’t hear him cry in the operating room,” Whitney remembered. “He had respiratory issues, of course, so he was intubated and whisked away to the NICU.”
Whitney, who also required immediate medical attention after delivery, didn’t meet her son for another 12 hours.
“He was so tiny – I’d never seen anything like that before,” Whitney recalled, the pain surfacing in her voice. “In that moment, there wasn’t any happiness. I was simply terrified.”
Over the next several weeks, Whitney learned how to care for her premature son alongside the doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists in his charge. She visited Max twice a day during “touch times,” which were periods allocated for diaper changes, temperature checks and other medical procedures.
“I’ve always been a hands-on mom, and the only way for me to be ‘hands-on’ in the NICU was to learn and understand exactly what they were doing for Max,” Whitney said. “I would ask his respiratory therapists questions like, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ They explained everything to me. I was fascinated by it.”
Max, who was initially given a 40-to-60 percent chance of survival, graduated from the NICU in September of 2019. During his homecoming, Whitney felt overjoyed, relieved – and nervous. Max, like most micro-preemies, would still require around-the-clock medical care. But Whitney and her family quickly settled into their new routine with help from an in-home nurse.
While processing her family’s NICU journey, Whitney decided to apply for OTC’s Respiratory Therapy Program. She began classes at the college in the spring of 2020.
“I decided to become a respiratory therapist to see and understand everything Max went through, Whitney explained. “Everything he had experienced in the NICU was so fresh in my mind. I wanted to understand it fully.”
Now two semesters into the program, Whitney says she’s found her calling. She plans to specialize in neonatal respiratory therapy to help other parents navigate the hardships she experienced in the NICU.
“Having been through it myself, I know I can be a much-needed resource to these families,” Whitney said with pride.
Armed with personal experience and the medical knowledge she wished she had during her own crisis, Whitney is turning her painful past into an opportunity to help others in their time of need.