When Anna Gonzales Smith graduated as a respiratory therapist from Jackson State Community College last summer, she had no problems finding a job.
For one thing, the married mother of two had the highest score on the first part of her respiratory care state board exam in the program’s 30-year history at Jackson State. She also graduated in the middle of a global pandemic when the need for respiratory therapists is high.
“Anna set lofty but attainable goals for herself and exceeded all of them,” said Christie Ward, assistant professor and clinical director of the respiratory care program. “She worked fulltime, balanced being a wife and also mom of a teenager and elementary-age child, and still maintained excellent grades. She was sought after by hospital employers because of her excellent clinical skills, positive attitude, and her strong work ethic.”
Like the other students in the program, Smith earned her associate of applied science degree in respiratory care over five semesters that included both classroom and clinical education. Besides her family responsibilities, she worked full-time at Fed Ex. She was also voted class president and helped the class raise money to make sure everyone in the class could pay for seminar costs.
“I love being a respiratory therapist,” said Smith, who is 33 years old. “Respiratory therapists treat all ages all over the hospital. We take care of patients in the scariest time of their lives.”
Smith attended Jackson State with financial assistance from the Tennessee Reconnect program for adults seeking a college or technical degree. She has a large extended family but can count on one hand the number of people in her family who have a college degree. She did, however, get her strong work ethic from her family.
A graduate of Milan High School, Smith started her college studies at Jackson State as she sought a degree in nursing. She dropped out of college when life’s “other obligations” got in the way, she said.
After working a few years as a nursing assistant and in admissions for West Tennessee Healthcare, she got a job at Fed Ex when her hospital closed. She was happy in her new career at Fed Ex, but she felt herself being called back into health care, and specifically to respiratory therapy because of family history and her own diagnosis of having asthma when she was a child.
One of her grandmothers has COPD. Another grandmother has tracheal stenosis. Her grandfather had problems getting off of a ventilator after open-heart surgery. Respiratory therapists were instrumental in helping her grandparents get better.
As she watched respiratory therapists wean her grandfather from the ventilator, Smith remembers thinking, “I want to know how I can be that person to help my grandad get off the ventilator. It’s hard to see people you love and care about not being able to breathe.”
She credits the help of her husband, Kyle, her family, and Jackson State for her new career. Today she has two jobs, working at both West Tennessee Healthcare and Henry County Medical Center. She’s called on to relieve overworked respiratory therapists at both hospitals.
“I feel like there is a reason why I am an RT,” Smith said. “I am doing what I should do for the rest of my life.”
She offers encouragement for older students considering college. “It doesn’t matter that I’m 33 years old. I’m a full-time wife and mother, and I am beginning a new career in the middle of a global pandemic. You can do it.”