B.C. respiratory therapy students graduate early to help fight coronavirus

Click to play video: 'B.C. respiratory therapy students graduate early to help with pandemic'
B.C. respiratory therapy students graduate early to help with pandemic
WATCH: B.C. respiratory therapy students graduate early to help with pandemic – May 23, 2020

When Justine Shaw signed up for Thompson Rivers University’s respiratory therapy program, she had no idea just how hands-on of an education she’d get.

Shaw is one of 65 students who were on track to finish the program this year who had their graduations fast-tracked as COVID-19 arrived in the province.

Respiratory therapists are specially trained to operate ventilator machines, the artificial systems that can keep life-saving oxygen flowing to the lungs of patients suffering severe respiratory illnesses.

With officials uncertain just how badly the coronavirus would hit B.C. hospitals, the decision was made to graduate students from TRU’s program — the only one of its kind in the province — several weeks early.

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“At first I was a little bit nervous just because there were so many unknowns with COVID-19, with the disease itself, with how it was going to progress, and how we were going to tackle it in hospital, especially with my education cut short,” Shaw told Global News.

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“But it ended up being fine and I was glad to be able to get out and help where needed.”

Shaw has been working at Vancouver General Hospital, where she took her clinical training, for the last two months.

“Every day is different — some days more challenging than others — but I have an awesome team that I’m working with,” she said.

Mike Lemphers, chair of TRU Respiratory Therapy Program, said the school condensed clinical shifts and created alternative assignments to make sure all graduating students still met their requirements.

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“It was mixed feelings, when you are graduating students early,” said Lemphers.

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But with images flooding back to Canada of health-care systems in crisis in China and Italy, he said the program had to make a decision.

“We were watching health-care systems become overwhelmed and the drastic shortage of health-care workers, so we made the decision in consultation with our dean to graduate these students early.”

The students who were graduated early already have years of instruction under their belt, and have all been paired with an experienced respiratory therapist to ensure they’re getting proper guidance on the job, he said.

So far, he says he’s been extremely proud of their performance.

Lemphers said TRU has also begun offering upskilling and retraining programs for respiratory therapists who have not been practicing in the clinical environment for some time, and want to get back on the job to help as the pandemic continues.

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