This current health crisis arguably has been the most teachable of moments for students in Piedmont Technical College (PTC) health care programs. This couldn’t be more true for students in the college’s Respiratory Care Program — a curriculum that teaches about caring for patients with lung disorders.

Because COVID-19 patients typically present to the hospital with serious breathing issues, the respiratory therapist (RT) is often among the first people a COVID patient sees. The RT may administer supplementary oxygen and breathing treatments or, in the worst cases, intubate the patient and connect them to a ventilator to mechanically assist their breathing.

“You can’t separate the heart from the lungs, so patients in multiple clinical areas need an RT present,” said Ann Piggott, program director for Respiratory Care at PTC. “For this reason, an RT can work in just about any part of the hospital, from the Intensive Care Unit to an inpatient floor to the Emergency Department. The pandemic has certainly made people more aware of respiratory care and ventilators and how the RT plays a critical role on the health care team.”

The PTC Respiratory Care Program loaned four of its ventilators to Self Regional Healthcare for several weeks during the height of the crisis. “I feel like we have done our part to help with that,” Piggott said. “We also gave masks, gowns and other PPEs (personal protective equipment). We basically stripped our cabinets.”

Piggott said that managing ventilators is one of the most challenging aspects of the program due to the technical complexity working with the machines. It’s not a matter of one size fits all.

“Every patient is a little bit different,” she explained. “Settings are based on the patient’s size such as height and weight. You have to learn a lot of different things. It’s kind of scary because if you don’t get it right, someone could die. It’s called ‘life support’ for a reason.”

Some of Piggott’s students already work in the patient-care setting. They shared some of their thoughts on the pandemic during an online Zoom class recently.

Deonte Gaffney works as a hospital emergency room technician. She expressed concern for hospitalized patients kept in strict isolation. “Not having family around, with visitors not allowed, it’s really, really tough,” she said. “We are still seeing positive patients coming in, especially from nursing homes.”

Porsha Burton, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) for 10 years, says that people truly need to understand the gravity of the virus and take it seriously.

“Some people think it’s made up or fake,” Burton said. “But some of these COVID patients are very, very sick.”

As someone who also has worked as a CNA, Shay Pemberton noted that soft skills such as empathy and communication are particularly important right now when unpopular isolation policies can confuse or anger families.

“The soft approach comes easier for me,” Pemberton said. “We have had the situation where the whole nursing home is in quarantine, but all family members come in at once wanting to visit and we can’t let them.” Even though they are extremely busy, health care workers, as they are able, should try to be a liaison with their loved one and help keep the communication channel open so the patient does not feel so alone. “It’s important that you take on that role, to be the family that they don’t have for the moment.”

Gaffney said that, for her, one of the most difficult things right now is dealing with PPEs.

“It’s hard to wear that mask for 12 hours a day,” she said. “It’s hard to breathe in and it can irritate the skin.”

“This virus is more contagious and virulent than the regular flu,” Piggott reminded the group. “We must wear the masks — not so much to protect ourselves but to protect our patients.”

Jessica Kennedy said that, between the PPE training and experiences in the classroom and the field, she believes the PTC program is preparing her well. “It will help us in the long run,” she said. “It’s chaos now, but once we go day by day, it will become more manageable.”

Piggott’s students learn not only how to properly put on and remove the PPEs but the proper order in which to do it. It’s a systematic process.

“COVID-19 has made people a lot more aware of different health care workers and the risks they take every single day with patients with infectious diseases,” she said. “This crisis has brought our professional more to the forefront.”

Employment for RTs is expected to grow by 23% through 2026. For more information about PTC’s Respiratory Care Program, visit www.ptc.edu/respiratory.

Submitted by Kristine Hartvigsen