Respiratory therapist Doris Ryan, RRT, has spent the past 30 years helping patients breathe.

“We are there at the beginning of life and the end of life, and every breath you take in between,” said Ryan, who was honored Oct. 19 with Christiana Care Health System’s inaugural PHIL Award.

The distinction, which stands for “pulmonary health and illness of the lungs,” is the signature program of the FACES Foundation, created in 2006 in memory of Philip Lamka by his wife. It is the only nationally recognized hospital-based appreciation program dedicated to honoring outstanding respiratory therapists, as nominated by patients, their families and caregivers. The annual award is administered by more than 60 hospitals in 18 states.

Mike Eppehimer, MHSA, FACHE, senior vice president for service line operations, presented Ryan with a certificate and a statuette depicting a figure holding a large butterfly with its wings spread, symbolizing the lungs. The sculpture represents respiratory therapists’ ability to help their patients breathe more easily. The honor also includes a paid trip to the annual conference of the American Association of Respiratory Care, the largest and most comprehensive respiratory care meeting in the world.

“I can’t say thank you enough,” Eppehimer told Ryan.

Eppehimer said Christiana Care’s respiratory therapists are a key part of the critical care team and are known nationally for their excellence. Christiana Care is recognized as a Quality Respiratory Care institution by the American Association for Respiratory Care, a distinction shared with only about 15 percent of hospitals nationwide.

Ryan’s brother Lewko Korzeniwsky, who traveled from Pittsburgh for the award ceremony, said his sister takes after their parents, Ukrainian immigrants Maria and Jerry, who instilled in their children a tireless work ethic. The couple also was on hand to witness the honor.

“She’s extremely self-effacing, very determined, exacting, precise and detail-oriented,” he said of his sister, adding that while the whole family recently had spent a weekend together, Ryan breathed not a word of the award.

Little did she know that her colleagues previously had arranged for her family to surprise her at the hospital reception.

Ryan’s modesty was on display in her acceptance. “I’m not much for this type of atmosphere,” she said. “But it’s a nice reward after all these years to get acknowledged. We usually just go home with a silent feeling in our head that we did well.”

“Doris is the ultimate patient advocate … She always does the right thing. She takes care of her patients meticulously.”

Michael Benninghoff, M.D.

That type of unassuming attitude reflects the role of respiratory therapists as unsung heroes of the intensive care unit.

“Nobody knows what a respiratory therapist is until you need one,” Ryan said.

In accepting her award, she recognized the work of the other nominees: Kate Bonnema, RRT, Lauren Kibler, RRT, and Linda Lavelle, RRT IV.

“She puts her heart behind her work. Doris was my mentor — she taught me a lot of the things I know,” said Adrienne Trzonkowski, BS, RRT, who along with Amanda Farris, BA, RRT-NPS, and Danielle Martino, BS, RRT, helped to bring the PHIL Award to Christiana Care.

About 150 respiratory therapists at Christiana Care respond in the direst of situations, including cardiac arrests and when patients at the end of life are on a ventilator, Ryan said. For patients of every age, from the premature baby to the 100-year-old, respiratory therapists are called when ensuring the ability to breathe spells the difference between life and death. And they are the ones who remove the ventilator when families make the difficult decision to discontinue life support for a dying patient.

Working in teams, respiratory therapists follow their patients — for example, from the intensive-care unit to a stepdown unit to rehabilitation or discharge — creating long-lasting relationships.

“She always has the patients and their families in mind,” said John Emberger, BS, RRT-AACS, FAARC, CPHQ, director of Respiratory Care, describing Ryan as a dedicated therapist and mentor to her colleagues. “She is very helpful with nursing and while caring for some of our most challenging patients — those who can’t speak for themselves.”

Mike Benninghoff, D.O., medical director, MICU, MERC, Respiratory Care, concurred.

“Doris is the ultimate patient advocate,” he said. “She always does the right thing. She takes care of her patients meticulously.”

Ryan has experienced both sides of the bedside. In June, after she encountered excruciating pain in her abdomen during a shift, coworkers convinced her to seek medical attention.

It was a good thing: Her appendix had ruptured, and Ryan spent the next nine days hospitalized. It was the first time she had called in sick in 13 years, said her brother, who was by his sister’s side during the whole stay, sleeping in her hospital room.

“When you’re on the other side as a patient, you realize what trauma a family goes through, and how they appreciate you taking just a little time with them,” Ryan said.

“I thought I was compassionate and understanding before, but I really got a taste of the other side.”