COVID-19 Pandemic Puts Spotlight on Respiratory Therapy Students at MGA and Other Schools

Sheron Smith

Monday, April 13th, 2020

Jasmine King isn’t directly involved with treating COVID-19 patients, but the pandemic looms large over her final weeks of clinical training as a Middle Georgia State University respiratory therapy major.

King, 23, is working rotations in the neonatal intensive care unit of an area hospital as she prepares to graduate this spring as a member of the first class of Middle Georgia State’s (MGA) bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy.
“We haven’t had any exposure to new mothers with COVID-19, but it’s something we’re always thinking about,” she said. “We are more conscious and careful about wearing our masks and being covered at all times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on the respiratory therapist (RT), a sometimes overlooked healthcare professional at hospitals and other clinical settings. As described by the Occupational Outlook Handbook, an online publication of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing - for example, from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema. Although far from the only treatment they provide, respiratory therapists often are the healthcare professionals that connect patients to and manage the oxygen-delivering ventilators everyone is hearing so much about these days.
“This is a critical time in our profession,” said Teri Miller, chair of MGA’s RT department. “Respiratory therapists are frontline caregivers in this pandemic. Even before all of this there was a shortage of respiratory therapists. It will be interesting to see if there is a surge of interest in the field in light of what is happening.”
Middle Georgia State began offering an associate’s degree in RT in 1994, a program that produced more than 500 graduates. The University recently retooled the program into a bachelor’s degree, which is now considered the field’s standard entry level credential. The new degree is just the fourth traditional baccalaureate respiratory therapy program in Georgia and the only one in the central and southwest part of the state.
King is one of eight seniors making up the charter class of MGA’s RT bachelor’s degree. Their last semester took a sharp turn due to the pandemic, which resulted in all institutions in the University System of Georgia, including MGA, transitioning to fully online classes in mid-March to finish out spring semester. The transition has been especially challenging for students majoring in healthcare fields such as respiratory therapy, which requires hands-on clinical training that can’t be done online.
Miller said the eight RT seniors had just about completed all of their clinical requirements when the University moved coursework online.  Faculty are using online resources to help the seniors prepare for their board exams, and students are finishing their clinical requirements at area healthcare facilities under the supervision of licensed RTs. The students are not directly caring for COVID-19 patients but the pandemic has created a sort of trial-by-fire training environment for them.
“I was a bit scared at first,” King said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But we’re having the same kinds of interactions we would have had with patients anyway, so that’s had a calming effect.”
Another MGA senior in the RT program, Justin McNair, is finishing his clinical requirements in the ICU of an area hospital. The pandemic filled his last semester with “a lot of twists and turns” but he feels that he and his fellow seniors have risen to the moment.
“It definitely presents a lot of new challenges in the clinical atmosphere,” said McNair, 25. “We’re not interacting with people positive for the virus, but there are a lot of patients we are around who are worried about it. We’ve all had to remind ourselves that (dealing with the challenges) is why we’re here. This is why we went to school and chose the degree program we’re in.”
Even with their concerns about the pandemic, King and McNair are excited about starting their careers. King is interviewing for positions at Atlanta-area hospitals and plans to apply at Macon facilities, too. McNair said he is weighing several job offers from healthcare facilities, also in Atlanta.
King was inspired, in part, to pursue a career in respiratory therapy after witnessing the kind of care practitioners provided to her grandmother, who was put on a ventilator when she had to be hospitalized about 10 years ago. Like Miller, she sees respiratory therapy as a calling, not just a profession.
“I’m concerned about the pandemic but I do think it has raised awareness of what respiratory therapists do,” she said. “I’m passionate about my career choice and I’m ready to get out there and use what I’ve learned.”
Both students said they are grateful to MGA’s School of Health and Natural Sciences and Department of Respiratory Therapy for the creativity and flexibility invested in making sure the seniors can graduate on time.
“Middle Georgia State has handled this so well,” McNair said. “The dean and professors have really risen to the occasion to make sure we can move forward and finish our degrees. I’m proud of my field and I’m proud of my school.”
MGA is responding to the pandemic in other ways. Along with other USG institutions with RT programs, MGA’s department contributed ventilators used for clinical training to a statewide effort to collect equipment for distribution to hospitals. MGA personnel delivered the donations to Kennesaw State University, where the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA), with support from Gov. Brian Kemp's office, is calibrating and certifying the equipment prior to distribution.
“Our department was glad to be able to contribute these ventilators to assist others during this time of extreme need," Miller said. “We are grateful to our alumni who have risen to the call during this time, and we are proud to be training future respiratory therapists who will graduate soon and join the ranks of those making a difference.”