Melissa Akers: Balancing family and a Respiratory Therapy education

Melissa Akers

Heading back to school at 46 wasn’t an easy decision for Radford University Carilion (RUC) respiratory therapy student Melissa Akers. She had her family to consider, including her husband, four children and two grandchildren. Akers’ youngest child was 12, and she would have to keep up with her daughter’s schoolwork, sick days, sitters, snow days and more. There were family dinners to think about and other chores around the house that she had traditionally cared for. The family certainly wouldn’t have her undivided attention anymore.

“I thought going back to school at an older age with more life responsibilities may be difficult,” Akers recalled. “I had been out of school for so long and needed to get back into ‘school mode.’ I was worried that my mind wouldn’t be as sharp as a 20-year-old’s. It was a lot to think about before I ultimately made the decision.”

Akers said she really struggled with deciding to make the leap for a couple months, but in the end, she knew that the long-term benefits of returning to school outweighed the short-term challenges she and her family would face.

“I had raised my older children while working jobs that allowed me to be at home more,” Akers said. “Now that they were grown, it was time for me to explore how I could better prepare for my future. I got to thinking about retirement and knew I needed a better-paying job with better benefits. Going back to school was the path to those things.”

Akers wasn’t exactly new to healthcare when she began classes at RUC.

“I’ve been part of the healthcare field for years,” Akers said. “I’ve worked in the front offices of family practices and oncology, neurology, internal medicine and chiropractic clinics. I chose to go back to school because that work in healthcare inspired me to learn more. I love to help people, and this was a way I could do it.”

Akers, who is in her junior year and expects to graduate in 2022, said her natural curiosity and love of learning new things have really been engaged in the respiratory therapy program.

“I’m a creature of habit, and at my age, really settled in a comfort zone,” Akers said. “So, it has been wonderful to experience a renewed sense of excitement about learning. The program and the faculty have been amazing.”

At RUC, the respiratory therapy program provides students with opportunities to participate in hands-on experiences with a variety of diagnostic procedures, such as drawing and analyzing blood samples, measuring the capacity and efficiency of a patient’s lungs, performing stress tests and other studies of the cardiopulmonary system, studying disorders of people with disruptive sleep patterns and reading and analyzing chest X-rays and electrocardiograms.

The program and clinical affiliates provide experience in sub-acute care, ICU rotations with pediatric, neonatal and adult patients, flight transport, long-term vent units, physician office rotations, sleep labs, pulmonary function testing and more. Each of these experiences allows students to learn interprofessionally, which gives students the chance to learn alongside students from other programs like nursing, physician assistant and others so they are prepared to provide care in teams when they graduate and go to work.

In addition, students are part of Carilion Clinic, a healthcare organization that employs nearly 14,000 professionals and has facilities that span more than 200 miles across the heart of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Akers said all of these opportunities were benefits that drew her to the program and have been instrumental in her education so far. She also said the faculty have been incredibly supportive.

“This program is special because of the professors,” Akers said. “They push us and encourage us to do our best. They are also understanding and help us any way they can to understand the curriculum.”

Like many programs at colleges and universities across the country, the respiratory therapy program had to make adjustments over the last year during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily for Akers and her classmates, after learning virtually last spring, this academic year has been more routine, with in-person classes returning last fall.

“I am excited to be back at RUC this year,” Akers said. “Some of my classes were changed a little, but nothing major. Because I came into the program mid-Covid, I don’t feel it will change my experience any more than it already has.”  

Akers said that being back together with her fellow students has been one of the best things about being back in the respiratory therapy lab this year.

“I love my group of peers because they don’t care how old I am,” Akers said with a laugh. “They treat me just like one of them. I try not to mother them, even though they are my middle children’s ages. It’s been great to be back with them as a group.”

Akers said that while being a student has been challenging, the results will be worth the sacrifices once she completes her degree.

“I’m home every day, but I’m not as readily available as I used to be,” Akers said. “This sacrifice is important because it will help me prepare for the future for me and my family. Getting out of that comfort zone was crucial for me to grow, especially now that my children are older.”

With graduation a little over a year away, Akers has begun to think about post-college life. She is currently considering working in a newborn intensive care unit (NICU).

“I love babies, and I want them to survive and grow up to be healthy, strong adults,” Akers said. “So, I’d like to get my certification for NICU care. I’d love to be able to travel and work. My ultimate goal would be to travel and work when my husband can retire and my youngest child is an adult.”  

In the meantime, as Akers moves into her final year at RUC, she said she can see quite the celebration coming next year as she achieves some significant milestones around the same time.

“I will celebrate some amazing accomplishments at 50 years old,” Akers said. “I will graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and I will have been married for 30 years. Who could ask for more?”

Feb 24, 2021
Mark Lambert