From babies to blue whales
Robert Tilton never thought he’d earn his claim to fame by becoming the first person to ventilate a whale in distress.
“Not to mention, it was all done at 14,000 feet in the air,” said Tilton, a 34-year veteran of Tahoe Forest Hospital’s top-ranking respiratory therapy department.
The bizarre event occurred in the mid-1970s, while Tilton, a Navy medical corpsman, was engrossed in respiratory studies at the University of California, Davis.
The sick whale was being transported from Seattle to San Diego where it would receive veterinary care.
Prior to that time, Tilton had been working on adaptations of what was then known as the “Bird Ventilator,” a device named after its inventor, Dr. Forrest Bird – often hailed as the father of respiratory care.
“I had been particularly looking at ways to create a ventilator that could be used on larger mammals like horses, which have a similar respiratory system to that of humans,” Tilton said.
Word of Tilton’s work quickly got around, until he was given the largest test of all.
“There was a sick teenage whale that had washed ashore in Seattle and needed to be transported to San Diego for treatment,” he said. “So they came and picked me up, put me in a car with red lights and sirens and sped me down to the Bay Area where they put me on a jet fighter for Seattle. At the time, it scared the hell out of me.”
Once in Seattle, Tilton boarded the C-130 that would transport the sick creature.
“I ventilated the whale the whole way while another doctor kept him asleep, ” he said. “It was really something else.”
Later, the success of that incident would lead Dr. Bird to take notice of Tilton’s work and enlist his help in future projects that would “teach the world how to breathe people different.”
“When Operation Desert Storm happened in the early ’90s, Bird was asked to create a ventilator that was easy to use in a combat environment, simple and strong enough to deal with the worst kinds of respiratory problems – namely pulmonary burns, in the event Saddam used gas on our troops,” Tilton said.
“Dr. Bird invited me to be a part of his research team, mainly conducting clinical trials of the equipment,” he said. “What that resulted in, was that it gave our small hospital access to the very latest technological respiratory advancements out there. Not only do we have some of the top respiratory therapists, but the most advanced equipment as well.”
Tilton is key part of what has put Tahoe Forest Hospital’s respiratory care services on the map, and ranked the department amongst the top facilities in the nation – not to mention, the world.
Tilton, who describes himself as one of the last, real locals left in Truckee, was actually born and raised here – a graduate of Truckee High School.
“I’m proof there is life after Truckee High,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of times they ask me to actually come and speak to students at the school because the kids feel like ‘What am I going to do after I get out of this little school is this small town?’ I try and show them that there are options, as well as ways to come back here and make a good living.”
When he’s not hard at work, Tilton is extremely active in a variety of local and international causes, including training local EMTs, raising money for TFH – even setting up his own clinic and respiratory therapy training program in Mexico.
Despite the fact that his expertise could have landed him jobs in various locations, he eventually chose to settle back in his hometown, where he’s remained for the last 34 years.
“Because of Truckee’s unique altitude and climate, we’ve really had to stay on top of the technological and medical advancements for respiratory medicine,” he said, of the department, whose members have an impressive 125 years of experience in the field combined. “I think that a lot of times we get a stigma, largely from tourists, who assume they could get better treatment at a larger hospital, but what they don’t realize is the type of one-on-one care we are able to offer here. We’ve got a better patient-physician ratio than most.”
He also stressed that the TFH’s respiratory therapists are regarded as some of the best around.
“We’re the ones traveling all over the country to lecture and teach other hospital’s about these treatments and technologies,” he said, holding up a photograph of himself, lecturing at Cedar/Sinai Hospital, a leading hospital in Southern California.
“I always say, just because we’re small, doesn’t mean we’re ignorant,” he said with a smile.