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Pandemic results in big changes to the program training people how to run ventilators

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photo courtesy of Seattle Central College respiratory care BAS program
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Rhooda Dhoble (left) and Seble Mesfin are graduates of the Seattle Central College respiratory care BAS program.

A piece of medical equipment most of us didn’t know much about has now become critically important around the world – ventilators.

The machines are used to help people breathe if their lungs are compromised, and many people sick with COVID-19 have been placed on ventilators.

The people who are experts in running those machines are known as respiratory therapists. And while their skills are in great demand right now, a program that trains the next generation of respiratory therapists has seen some big changes due to the pandemic.

Colleges have shifted courses online, and that includes the respiratory care program at Seattle Central College. In addition, students in the program normally do a lot of clinical training in hospitals, but those opportunities are limited right now in part because hospitals are trying to conserve personal protective equipment.

Jennifer Clark is program director for the Seattle Central College respiratory care program.

“This is a very hands-on job. It requires a lot of hands-on learning, and we’re not allowed to bring them into our program to do this hands-on learning,” Clark said. “It is impossible to learn how to use a ventilator solely from looking at videos and talking about it.”

The lack of clinical access has affected juniors and some seniors in the bachelor of applied science program, said Scott Mahoney, who directs clinical education for the Seattle Central program. He said he’s hopeful that students “will return to their clinical rotations at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.”

Clark said the program is now using alternatives such as simulations or lab time for students. But she says hospitals will have to make up for their new hires' gap in clinical experience.

“The hospitals themselves are going to have an increased burden of orienting the students to the patients. They will have to do a lot more on-the-job training than initially is required,” Clark said. “So they won’t just hit the ground running. They’re going to need a lot more support when they graduate. But our hospitals are pretty darn good at this.”

The program has 18 seniors who will graduate in June, entering a medical environment that has changed dramatically from when they first started their studies.

“We haven’t had any students come to us and say, 'You know what? In light of this new situation, I’m scared and maybe I don’t want to learn how to do this,'” Clark said. “Nobody has said that to us yet. They may be feeling it, but nobody has actually not shown up to online class or not engaged in conversation or not worked toward the assignments that we’re putting out.”

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.