Respiratory therapists keep WNY breathing through the pandemic

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BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) They are the medical professionals who help people breathe easier and, in the midst of a pandemic which often leads patients to require breathing through a ventilator, respiratory therapists are in demand more than ever before.

At SUNY Erie Community College’s Amherst campus, a new class of students is being trained as Respiratory therapists. They are the ones who will not only set up patients on ventilators and carry them through the process, but also try to find alternatives.

“A majority of our students have been touched by Covid in some way,” said Kathy Henninger, a respiratory therapy instructor at ECC. “The minute we’re putting a patient on a ventilator, we’re thinking of how can we get them off a ventilator, and we’re managing any of the events that are happening while a patient is on a ventilator.”

Connie Zimicki is the director of Clinical Education for SUNY ECC. “You know, we want to prone, we want to get people on their bellies. We want to keep them off the ventilator.”

Zimicki and Henninger not only teach the next generation but are also registered respiratory therapists, who since Covid have seen a trend where the position is now dealing with twice as many patients at one time….sometimes 25 in one day.

“They’re getting burnt out because of the amount of patients that they have to see every day, in addition to just the Covid patients, they’re still taking care of COPD patients they’re taking care of the asthmatics and they’re also taking care of trauma patients and things like that,” said Henninger.

There are also more cases of RSV popping up in young people. It’s gotten to the point where many RT’s are unable to bring in an intern. That means less time for the student in a hospital setting. Instead, they’re getting more simulation training in the classroom.

“There’s so many high tech things that these mannequins can do,” said Henninger. “They breathe, they cough, they can talk, I can intubate them, I can do anything that I can do with a real patient. It’s just that awkwardness of having a mannequin in front of you that the student has to get past.”

With this two year degree, Respiratory Therapists can start at about $50,000, and while there are still many students willing to get into the field, it may not keep up with the number of older therapists ready for retirement especially after a pandemic which led Kathy to work long hours and, at times, stay in a hotel to keep the risk away from her family.

“And my mind when I was at home was always about my patients. Is that one gonna be okay, or we had another really tough loss on another patient and it was just consuming me,” said Henninger, who adds that what drives her now is training the new generation about how precious each breath can be to saving a life. “That makes me so proud to be able to see these students going out there and taking care and kicking Covid’s butt.”

Zimicki feels that the new appreciation for respiratory therapists is long overdue. “I’ve seen a pendulum switch through this respiratory disease where there’s a lot more reliance on our expertise.”

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