Grace Berning, left, and Meredith Patey in a respiratory therapy lab at SAIT on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Patey was teaching Berning how to perform CPR on a mannequin. (Photo by Pamela Shah/The Emery Weal)

The request for health care workers skyrocketed during pandemic, in order to meet the demand, SAIT new graduates from the respiratory therapy program are eager to work.

A respiratory therapist manages problems with the lungs, heart, breathing, and circulation. They work with people of all ages and help to perform CPR, manage ventilators, and provide oxygen therapy.

“We threw them into the fire, and they excelled. Our students excelled,” said Meredith Patey, a teacher in the respiratory therapy program at SAIT.

While jobs in this industry are quite diverse, the demand for respiratory therapists in hospitals and emergency rooms boomed since the pandemic began.

“Our students were one of the only health care programs that were able to maintain their practicum placements, because in a respiratory pandemic, we need respiratory therapists. Delaying graduation of these students was going to be a detriment to society,” said Patey.

Time of crisis

Hospital capacity and resources went through a hard time due to the influx of patients in critical condition. The number of patients administered to ICU rooms climbed to double the capacity the rooms were built for. Practicum students witnessed this firsthand.

“They were in situations where they were in an ICU with 40 patients in a room that was built for 20,” said Patey.

Indeed, there were too many patients and not enough hospital staff. Consequently, this strain on the health care industry drove many to burn-out and to quit their jobs.

“When someone died in the ICU, the floor wasn’t even dried from being cleaned when they were filling that space with another patient,” said Patey.

Some students in the graduating class of 2021 faced similar strife. This has caused more students to drop out of the program than normal.

“[They] saw a lot of death. They were the people who were working in the hospitals when family members weren’t allowed to come in and see their family at the end of their lives,” said Patey.

Meeting the challenge

Grace Berning in a respiratory therapy lab at SAIT on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Berning was a third year student in the respiratory therapy program and she was completing her practicum. (Photo by Pamela Shah/The Emery Weal)

Despite these challenges, the graduating students of 2023 are passion to use their training and face the pandemic head-on. Grace Berning is one of these students.

“What a great career to have after a respiratory pandemic, to become a respiratory therapist,” said Grace Berning.

Berning describes herself as a person who likes having a busy work schedule. She says that the rewards motivate her to keep going even though she experienced bad days.

“I definitely feel for the people that had to work through COVID. I was lucky that the pandemic calmed down a little bit when I started my practicum. I haven’t experienced that kind of burn-out, but it hasn’t pushed me away from wanting to be a part of this,” said Berning.

The rewards

The respiratory therapy program teaches students a wide variety of skills, such as patient assessment, respiratory anatomy, causes for disease and injury (pathophysiology), pulmonary function tests, and anesthesia.

“In a patient’s room, the family members thank you so much for coming in and doing this,” said Berning.

“You forget that people coming in don’t see this kind of stuff every day, so what’s a standard of practice to you is actually a really big thing for some people. It’s also really rewarding when someone can finally talk again, and you can hear their raspy ‘hello.’”

Programs at SAIT switched to an online model that offered remote classes during the pandemic. Students were unable to attend in-person classes, but Patey said that remote learning enhanced students’ ability to adapt. This adaptation is crucial in the health care industry.

“As respiratory therapists, we’re known as the people who can adapt on the fly. That’s just the nature of our profession. The pandemic forced us to use those skills,” said Patey.

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