Helping People Breathe Easier
Meet Cindy Averitt, respiratory therapist at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in Bolivia and the North Carolina Society for Respiratory Care Practitioner of the Year.
Cindy Averitt abandoned her desire to be a teacher when she heard her twin sister marvel at the fascination of studying respiratory therapy. This specialty treats patients from newborns to seniors who have breathing difficulties and respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Averitt switched careers at Fayetteville Technical College 30 years ago, and in September 2019 was named Practitioner of the Year by North Carolina Society for Respiratory Care.
“I thought they got the names mixed up,” Averitt says from Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in Bolivia, where she’s been employed for nearly four years. She asked the manager of respiratory care services, Michelle Sumrall, if the information was accurate. “She texted me the letter,” Averitt says, which confirmed the award. “There are so many other people, especially here [at Novant] who deserve it way more than I do.”
Averitt credits her twin, Wendy Smith, and Sumrall for inspiring her. “They are great role models,” she says.
Sumrall, who supervises 17 respiratory therapists at Novant, admires Averitt for her ability to relate to patients. “She always puts patients first,” she says.
In May 2019 Averitt received an honorable mention BEE award (Beyond Exceptional Expectations), which recognizes team members at Novant who provide extraordinary compassionate care.
Dressed in a black pants outfit, the color designated for the respiratory care unit at Novant, Averitt uses her hands to emphasize her words when she talks. “I like the patient interaction,” she says. She says makes an effort to learn something about the patient, tells a bit about herself and explains procedures. “Patients come in needing help and leave being relieved,” she says. “I love to see the turnaround.”
The hardest part of her job, she says, is being too busy to spend enough quality time with each patient.
Averitt gets teary thinking of children who come for treatment. “Kids are hard,” she says. “It’s a celebration [at end of life] for older people.” She takes several seconds before continuing. “For a child it’s not.”
“One of the most humbling parts of our job is at one moment having a baby take its first breath and then the next hour someone taking a last breath,” Sumrall says.
“We are extremely privileged to be there not only at birth but at the end of life as well,” Averitt says. She gets emotional again when she tells of handing a newborn to the mother. “You can’t describe it,” she says. “I’m getting goosebumps.”
Because of the care Averitt gives, patients remember her. One family, whose relative was hospitalized, became so impressed with Averitt that they included her in their family photo quilt. Another time, after she and a teammate resuscitated a newborn, the mother told her, “I remember you. You’re the one with different colored hair. You were working on my baby. Thank you.”
Averitt laughs and motions to her hair, explaining where she had colored streaks. “I never even knew she noticed us.” She says her late mother always told her and her sister to be nice to everyone. “She was that kind of person. She saw it as a challenge, and I see it as a challenge, especially with difficult patients. I consider it a personal challenge to make them glad they are here.”
Without hesitating both Averitt and Sumrall say smoking is the biggest mistake people make and the top reason why people need respiratory therapy. “Top of the list,” Averitt says. “Every single day someone comes in.”
They educate patients about the detriment of smoking and how to combat the habit. “My dad died of lung cancer,” Averitt says. “I’ve been there, and I know how hard it is to quit.”
Vaping is beginning to be an issue with people in their 20s and 30s, the women add. Sumrall says the biggest problem with vaping is additives because people often order liquids online that may contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). “They have no idea what they are getting,” she says. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Before coming to Novant, Averitt worked for 10 years at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville then moved back to Salemburg, North Carolina, where she grew up. She lived next door to her parents and worked at Sampson Regional Medical Center in Clinton. She later came to Novant because she and Tim, her companion, love the coast and wanted to make it their home. They live in Holden Beach with their Chihuahua Piper, 3, poodle Boomer, 2, and Maltipoo Sissy, 13. Her daughter, Kaitlyn Tyndall, 26, is an emergency room nurse at WakeMed in Raleigh.
Averitt is now enrolled in a bachelor of science program for respiratory therapy at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She admits to being nervous taking tests and good naturedly adds she has obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition in which people are driven to do things repeatedly. In an effort to be exact, “I rewrite my work list about three times each day,” she says.
“She doesn’t have to rewrite it,” Sumrall says. “She gets a printout.”
Teammate Mary Wayne, who nominated Averitt for Practitioner of the Year, says, “Cindy is extremely intelligent, thorough and always looking for ways to assist patients.” She applauds her on being dedicated to respiratory therapy and for working toward her bachelor’s degree. “She’s still striving and young therapists can look up to her.”
Averitt contributes it all to the team.
“Although we have bad days and are extremely busy and are running from one thing to another, I still enjoy my job,” Averitt says. “Busy days really showcase our teamwork.”
Photos by Jo Ann Mathews