The mother of four children, Berriel was 38 when she resolved to enroll at Grossmont College’s Respiratory Therapy Program, the only public program of its kind in the county. Three years later, the Spring Valley resident is now quickly progressing in a new line of work where she helps save lives almost daily.
Berriel is one of more than 1,000 respiratory therapists who have graduated from the Grossmont College program since its inception 50 years ago this fall. Walk into any local hospital or medical center, and you’ll find a respiratory therapist trained at Grossmont College, said Rebecca Handley, the program’s director of clinical education. “We’ve had a big impact on San Diego County,” she said.
Berriel had been working at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego as an assistant in the transplant office, all the while enrolling at a community college class here and there with an eye on a possible career as a nurse. But time was passing by. She had a family to raise. And a nursing career was looking less likely by the day.
Asked what appealed to her about becoming a respiratory therapist, Berriel was quick to respond: “It’s all about direct patient care. And, you know, breathing is really important.”
Berriel looked at several schools, but others were private and pricey. At approximately $5,000 spread over two years, the Grossmont College program is a fraction of what privately owned and managed schools in the region are charging.
She enrolled in August of 2016.
“From the very beginning, Diana’s dedication to the program was evident,” said Program Coordinator Peggy Wells. “There were several obstacles that could have prevented her from completing the program, but these obstacles just seemed to make her stronger and more determined. She was engaged, always eager to learn, prepared for all of her courses, and would assist others whenever needed. She continued to balance work, family, volunteer work, clinical hours, and externships with professionalism, compassion and gratitude towards everyone she encountered.”
Former Grossmont College instructor Kathryn Johnson had similar sentiments.
“Diana was one of those students you don’t soon forget,” Johnson said. “It was clear from the beginning that she was passionate about her career choice and was determined to succeed, working hard to overcome any obstacles she encountered. Her dedication was evidenced by her calm and compassionate care for her patients.”
Berriel graduated in June of 2018. She was hired at Sharp Memorial Hospital three months later and began working as a respiratory therapist Oct. 22 that year. As a floor therapist, Berriel’s responsibilities include assisting physicians in inserting a breathing tube through a patient’s mouth and into the airway, operating BiPAP machines for patients in respiratory distress, attending all code blue events and administering nebulizer treatments.
“I feel like I’m part of a team that is saving people’s lives and helping them get better,” Berriel said.
Long-term goals include further training in intensive care unit services and perhaps patient education.
Berriel’s message to others contemplating a career change?
“It’s never too late to go back to school. It’s never too late to try something new. Yeah, there are going to be challenges, but here I am, with a full-time position, making a decent salary and making a difference.”