The fact that Monica Christensen, a respiratory therapist at Wright Medical Center, Clarion, Iowa, doesn't just sit around and wait for life to happen might have something to do with the fact that she spent the first 13 years of her life sitting on the couch. Severe asthma, improperly treated for much of her childhood, kept her from doing the usual kid stuff, and she missed so much school that she risked failing though her grades were high. She was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia and "lived on medicine."

When her small-town doctor finally sent her to an allergy specialist, she was properly diagnosed and treated for a host of allergies and finally got to go outside and play with her four siblings. Her body grew by leaps and bounds, making up for lost time. "It was life changing," she recalls. "So I don't take anything for granted."

Christensen, named an Iowa Hospital Association Hospital Hero last year, has worked at Wright since 1998, building up the respiratory therapy department from practically nonexistent to an 11-person team today with specialists in sleep, cardiac and pediatric therapy. Among her recent feats: delivering an emergency oxygen concentrator to a patient's home after hours; spending a few hours caring for the children of a young woman whose husband was dying; performing CPR on a runner in distress after she'd just completed a half-marathon.

Wright Medical Center CEO Steve Simonin says that for Christensen, that sort of stuff is pretty much all in a day's work. She's always given out her phone numbers to patients so they can reach her after-hours and paid home visits when a patient needed help and the hospital's home care contractor wasn't immediately available.

"I've had one patient complain about Monica in the 13 years she's been here," says Simonin, who notes her patient satisfaction scores are always at 99 percent, "and it was that she hugs too much and she's too close to her patients. She is kind of an Olympic star with regard to service and quality."

When Christensen arrived at Wright, she essentially talked her way into a job that didn't exist yet. The hospital wasn't looking to build up a respiratory therapy department, but Christensen persuaded executives that they needed one. She launched respiratory therapy programs at two other rural Iowa hospitals before landing at Wright.

"She came in like a tornado and started this massive program," Simonin says. "She said, 'I can do this for you guys,' and we said 'OK.' We just believed in her and trusted and respected her background and knowledge."

At first, she and another therapist she hired were on call 24/7. Now, she works from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 at night, and is otherwise on call three weeks a month. Working in a small town, though, she's never really off duty. "When you go to the grocery store or church, or to dinner, you'll have someone come up and say, 'Hey, I have a question about my inhaler.'" she says.

She wants her patients to feel comfortable calling her at home or stopping her on the street. "Those relationships that keep coming back to you, that's why our departments are so successful," she says. "Our patients don't want to go anywhere else for their care."

Simonin says that personal touch is part of the culture at Wright, but it's a culture that Christensen was instrumental in establishing. "You know that old saying, 'A rising tide raises all boats'?" Simonin says. "Monica has definitely pushed everybody in the right direction. We basically became better because of some of the examples she's shown us."

For example, when heart attack patients try to back out of cardiac rehab after three or four sessions, "a lot of therapists will say, 'OK,'" Simonin says. "Not Monica. She knows the patients need this and why they need this. She'll explain that to them in a way they understand, so they realize how important it is for them to do the appropriate exercise and rehab."