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A Lifetime Devoted to Breath: Dr. Carolyn Rochester and Her Journey in Pulmonary Rehabilitation

January 04, 2024
by Osman Moneer

In October 2023, the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR) honored Carolyn Rochester, MD, FCCP, professor of medicine, with the prestigious Thomas L. Petty Distinguished Pulmonary Scholar Award. The award is presented to an individual “who has made significant advances in the field of pulmonary rehabilitation through research and scholarly contributions and has earned national prominence in the field.”

Rochester is the director of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Program within the Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care Medicine (Yale PCCSM) at Yale. She has tirelessly dedicated her career to the field of pulmonary rehabilitation and COPD, a journey that has taken her from scientific research to clinical care.

Now an icon in the field, Rochester did not always intend to pursue a career in medicine. Early in her education, she considered teaching biology at the high school level. After spending time working in a research lab during college, Rochester embarked on a career in scientific research and medicine. She received her MD degree at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she then stayed for her internship, residency, and post-graduate pulmonary fellowship training. She then came to Yale for further fellowship training and subsequently joined the faculty in 1991.

Following the completion of her training, Rochester initially allocated a significant portion of her time to research in airway immunology. After a pivotal clinical rotation at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., she developed her interest in pulmonary rehabilitation, inspired by key mentorship from Redento Ferranti, MD. She decided to shift her focus from bench research to clinical care and teaching.

"My rotations in pulmonary rehabilitation inspired me,” Rochester said. “I saw how the process of inpatient rehabilitation could change the lives of people with advanced lung diseases."

Rochester emphasizes that career paths are seldom linear. Although she found her research intellectually stimulating, she realized that her true passion lay in taking care of individuals and in teaching. Still, she cherishes the time spent in bench research, recognizing its value in helping her understand techniques and medical literature.

"I was more of a people person,” Rochester said. “I loved education, and the times I felt that I was most rewarded was when I was taking care of human beings. I enjoyed making a difference that enabled a person to feel better, live better, and function better in their day-to-day life."

Rochester’s career highlights are a testament to her unwavering dedication. She played a pivotal role in establishing the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease program at Yale, and developed the first-ever pulmonary rehabilitation program at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in 2002 which remains active to this day.

“Dr. Petty was a giant in pulmonary medicine – and I cannot think of anybody more deserving to get an award named after him than Dr. Rochester. She has impacted the life of so many patients with COPD and other respiratory conditions due to her commitment to pulmonary rehabilitation, as well as other aspects of COPD care, research, education, and advocacy. We are proud of her achievements and grateful to work with her!” said Naftali Kaminski, MD, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. Professor of Medicine (Pulmonary) and chief of Yale PCCSM.

Aside from her significant clinical work and research contributions, Rochester has held several leadership roles in the American Thoracic Society and various international committees. She remains at the forefront of advocating for pulmonary rehabilitation and COPD nationally, collaborating with multidisciplinary teams, international health societies and health systems to improve patient outcomes.

For Rochester, pulmonary rehabilitation is not just about treating diseases but understanding and caring for the person as a whole - physically, functionally, mentally, and in terms of quality of life. Her pioneering work has played a vital role in reshaping how we approach the care and wellness of individuals with chronic respiratory conditions.

The Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine is one of the eleven sections within Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine. To learn more about Yale-PCCSM, visit PCCSM's website, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Submitted by Julie Parry on January 04, 2024