Georgia State Respiratory Therapists Battle COVID-19
Meghan Jenei (M.S. ’19) begins her day collecting the supplies she needs for her shift at an Atlanta hospital — gloves, mask, face shield. Only then does she meet with the health professional she is relieving. Jenei, a master’s degree graduate of the Byrdine F. Lewis College of Nursing and Health Professions, is a respiratory therapist (RT), part of a healthcare specialty frequently unrecognized — until COVID-19 arrived.
The novel coronavirus COVID-19, also known as SARS-CoV2, is primarily a respiratory disease, so RTs are vital in the care of hospitalized patients, especially the most critically ill. Extremely ill COVID-19 patients who have trouble breathing must be intubated, placing a breathing tube into the airway and connecting it to a mechanical ventilator.
“Respiratory therapists are the most knowledgeable and skilled health care provider in the management of a mechanical ventilator and overall lung function, more so than any other healthcare practitioner, even a physician,” said Dr. Doug Gardenhire, department chair of Georgia State’s RT degree programs. “RTs focus solely on the lungs and heart, while the doctor must be concerned with the patient’s overall care. RTs understand the entire mechanical ventilator and the lung physiology needed to care for critically ill patients.”
Yet, the public may not be familiar with RTs as a specialty healthcare provider.
“I am commonly misidentified as a nurse or doctor,” said Tamethia Perkins (B.A. ’14), respiratory therapy alumna and graduate respiratory therapy teaching assistant. “We are the managers and the experts of the airway. And while many health care professionals assume a certain level of risk just by walking into our work facilities each day, the RT is now exposed to an even higher, potentially deadly risk.”
In the fight against COVID-19, the RT Department is doing more than educating practitioners. With classes moved to distance learning for the rest of the semester, the department offered its equipment and supplies to area hospitals because the inventory of ventilators and protective equipment such as gloves and masks remains low. Other academic programs in the Lewis College made their supplies available as well. Under a quickly assembled agreement, the RT Department prepared its ventilators to be borrowed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and may be used anywhere in the state.
There are about 150,000 registered respiratory therapists nationwide. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21 percent more are needed to care for patients as the population ages. This need doesn’t account for those needed now to battle COVID-19. While the shortage of equipment, such as ventilators, could be addressed by accelerated manufacturing, it takes additional faculty and clinical sites to educate a larger number of RTs.
Georgia State’s graduating RTs are ready to be part of the health care crisis team. New graduates will hold temporary licenses upon graduation, and most have received multiple job offers.
“Georgia State graduates more RTs than any other program in the state, by far,” said Gardenhire.
Over the next two years, Georgia State will graduate 87 new RTs and produce 58 master’s prepared advanced practice RTs. More than 1,415 RT alumni have graduated from Georgia State’s program since it started 50 years ago.
Georgia State’s reputation in RT goes well beyond Georgia. The RT program is one of the largest nationally and one of only a handful offering an entry master’s degree program, which puts more highly educated RTs into the field. In 2019, the department received the American Association for Respiratory Care Apex Recognition Award, one of only three higher education institutions to receive the award.
“The faculty and staff of the Georgia State program have many years of firsthand experience in the field,” Perkins said. “Not only did they share their knowledge [with students], I felt their passion guiding me as I aspired to become an RT.”
The department’s reputation is growing internationally. It has exchanged students with universities in Taiwan and India and has long been the first choice for Saudi Arabian RTs. Last December, the unit hosted faculty and leadership from Hangzhou Medical College in China. RT faculty plan to go to Hangzhou to train respiratory therapists and make plans for accepting Hangzhou students into the Georgia State program. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing for collaboration is ideal.
Angela Arnold Go
Director of Communications
Byrdine F. Lewis College of Nursing and Health Professions