A quick look around St. Mary’s Medical Center’s Pulmonary Rehab unit and you might think it’s not much more than an in-house gym. Yes, there are trainers, treadmills and other exercise equipment. But a closer look reveals we also have things such as an armogometer, which I’ll talk about soon and which is not found in most fitness clubs.

The other big difference between us and a gym, is a dedicated staff of certified health care professionals dedicated to medical therapies combined with education and exercise to meet the individual needs of people with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis or any chronic lung disease. These advanced-practice clinicians conduct tests to measure lung function and then teach people how to manage their chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), which may be coupled with asthma as well as many other issues with cardiac and lung functions.

On the in-patient end of the spectrum, respiratory therapists often are in charge of managing life support for people in emergency departments, intensive care units along with stabilizing, treating and managing patients in transit.

On the out-patient end of things, at St. Mary’s we concentrate on airway management and getting the best pulmonary (lung) function possible for our patients. The education part of our job is critical. Many patients come to us having little hope they will get any better or have given up trying themselves. This is also the payoff for those of us fortunate enough to work with these patients. I routinely witness patients, who come to us barely able to walk through the doors without difficulty, that soon manage to easily stroll for a half an hour on a treadmill in a relatively short period of time.


We begin with an initial evaluation of your cardiopulmonary status, lung function and exercise tolerance. We mark your pre and post-weight blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate. We often catch other serious health issues.

During this first step, or Phase I as we call it, we strive to get a commitment from our patients to stop smoking along with any other lifestyle choices that may be standing in the way of their ability to improve. This can be difficult, but essential if we (yes, this is a team sport) are to be successful.

Phase II involves yet more work. Twice a week, for two hours, our patients begin an individualized exercise program to restore an improve strength and endurance. This involves five exercises from walking and stepping to cycling and armogometer training. As promised - an armogometer is a stationary bicycle for the arms. It helps develop your upper body strength as well as heart and lung function. We learn coping mechanisms to deal with your stress and other individual needs.

Maybe the most beneficial part of this phase is camaraderie. Your journey is shared by many others working to achieve the same goal of preventing bronchitis, pneumonia and frequent trips to the hospital.

After completing the eight-week program, we move into what might be called Phase III (or maintenance.) We don’t call it that, because this part of recovery never really ends. It’s a lifetime commitment. It involves participation in monthly support group meetings, an on-site maintenance exercise program, (which costs only $10 per week) and a home exercise program designed just for you. Your spouse or loved ones are encouraged to become actively involved in your rehabilitation process.

Sadly, Medicare and private insurances do not fund these types of programs fully. But St. Mary’s does recognize the need and can help in making resources available for those who need it. You just don’t find that in an average fitness club.

Michelle Hiles-Seimears is a Registered Respiratory Therapist at St. Mary’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center. She can be reached at 816-655-5255.