Milena Khodjaeva: breathing life into patient care and compassion

Milena Khodjaeva

Radford University Carilion (RUC) respiratory therapy student Milena Khodjaeva is no stranger to experiencing big life changes. Since she was a child, those changes have defined who she is and what path she would follow.

When she was 7 years old, Khodjaeva moved with her parents from Uzbekistan to the United States. At the time, she only spoke Russian and had to quickly learn a new language while adjusting to a new culture. Such a dramatic change can be traumatic for some, but Khodjaeva took it in stride and found her footing quickly — a trait that would serve her well when she encountered other big changes in her life.

“I was just starting elementary school at the time,” Khodjaeva recalled. “Being so young, learning English came naturally to me, and I adjusted to living in the U.S. very quickly. I was too little to truly understand that I would no longer see my family in Uzbekistan and that my life was going to change completely. Today, I feel like I have lived here my whole life.”

As Khodjaeva grew up, she continued to excel in school and became more comfortable with her culture and community. Another big change was on the horizon, though, and it would help her find her passion and define her journey in life.

When Khodjaeva was a junior in high school, her family relocated again from Maryland to Tennessee. She enrolled in AP courses and continued to be an exemplary student, but she still hadn’t discovered her path to a career.

“As my senior year of high school approached, I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with my life,” Khodjaeva said, adding that she began to put serious thought into what interested her.

Growing up, Khodjaeva loved watching medical mystery and procedural shows on TV. She thought about how that love had led to an interest in healthcare and anatomy. However, she recalls she was admittedly very squeamish and said she lacked confidence in her ability to work in such a demanding field.  

“I was determined, though,” said Khodjaeva, “and I decided to spend an entire summer break studying anatomy. As my understanding expanded, my passion followed, and my confidence grew.”

Khodjaeva said her summer of study allowed her to see the beauty of anatomical science and discover her own potential as a healthcare professional. When she returned to school for her senior year, her teachers noticed the potential as well.

“During my senior year in high school,” Khodjaeva recalled, “my medical therapeutics and anatomy teachers encouraged and validated my interests and plans. It really made me feel like I was making the right decisions with my path in life.”

One of Khodjaeva’s teachers encouraged her to participate in HOSA, a student organization for future healthcare professionals. As part of that organization, Khodjaeva placed first in a medical terminology competition for the state of Tennessee.  

Khodjaeva’s peers also recognized her growing enthusiasm and expertise in healthcare.

“Other students would often ask me for help with anatomy,” she said. “Being able to help others study motivated me to allocate all my leisure time to anatomy so I could answer a broad range of questions and have a deeper understanding for myself.”

After graduating with honors, Khodjaeva spent several years living and working in east Tennessee. At a certain point, she decided it was time to make another leap and began exploring options to earn a degree in a healthcare field. She spent some time thinking about what she would study and settled on respiratory therapy.

“I chose to major in respiratory therapy because the respiratory system fascinates me,” Khodjaeva said. “I love to study anatomy in general but find respiratory anatomy the most beautiful and intriguing.”

Khodjaeva said the respiratory therapy program at RUC had everything she was looking for: it was a four-year program, which could help her with admission to an advanced degree program later on and in finding a job when she graduates, and it was located in a clinical setting with a completely different feel from a typical college campus.

“You are reminded every day why you are here as you enter the building and see patients on their way to be treated,” Khodjaeva said. “Everybody is united with one common goal in mind, which is to succeed in healthcare and help our future patients.”

Khodjaeva said she has found the respiratory therapy curriculum at RUC to be thorough, complex and above all, enticing. 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.

Khodjaeva said all of these factors played a part in her decision to become a Highlander at RUC.

“I figured out a way I could take my passion for anatomy and translate it into working with patients,” she said. “I was nervous when I first applied, but I know I made the right choice because I love going to class at RUC, knowing that I will be able to apply my knowledge to the real world.”  

Khodjaeva is now a junior and expects to graduate in May 2022. Upon graduation, she will be the first in her family to have earned a degree in a healthcare field and the first to work in the profession — a fact that makes her very proud, especially in the midst of the global COVID pandemic.

“The pandemic has made the world aware of the importance of respiratory therapists and all other healthcare workers,” Khodjaeva said. “By learning about specialized roles, the public can appreciate the vast network of professionals and understand the complexity of healthcare. Everyone provides a service to the patient that will collectively improve outcomes.”

Khodjaeva said she looks forward to seeing patients without a mask at some point in the near future, considering the multiple vaccines already in circulation.

“I am optimistic about the future and hope that during my senior year, I’ll get to participate in lots of clinical rotations in many different units,” she said. “A big component to success is intrinsic motivation and thirst for knowledge. This drive is critical when it comes to patient care and showing compassion.”

Mar 23, 2021
Mark Lambert