Ventilator operators look to boost numbers in wake of COVID-19

The medical specialists who help keep the most serious respiratory cases alive amid COVID-19 are in the midst of a recruitment drive to bolster their numbers as the virus spreads across the country.

Respiratory therapists run ventilators, the mechanized breathing machines that help patients with damaged lungs get enough oxygen to live.

Since COVID-19 can harm the lungs, ventilators and their operators are critical to the survival of patients hit hard by the virus.  

In Ontario and B.C. where the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases have been reported, respiratory therapists have already been feeling the strain of extra work. 

"They're already finding that their workload is much higher than usual, and that is involving them doing patient care, but also again [they are] on the front lines assessing and educating patients that are symptomatic and preparing for a greater onslaught later on," said Carolyn McCoy, the director of professional practice for the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists. 

Submitted by Carolyn McCoy

Right now, there are enough respiratory therapists across the country to meet demand, but the profession wants to be prepared for the predicted surge in patients that could be coming, according to McCoy.

"Part of the national pandemic plan is to mobilize respiratory therapists who have retired say, but take students from the clinical aspect of their training and bring them into practice," she said. 

Those students would fill in, handling some of the duties of a respiratory therapist. The Nova Scotia College of Respiratory Therapists, which regulates the profession in the province, has already started reaching out to therapists who have retired in the last five years. 

Temporary licences will be given to retirees who want to help out during the pandemic, according to Noel Pendergast, the college's president. 

Licences would also be available to any "out of province RTs who are able to come to Nova Scotia to help out during this pandemic period," said Pendergast. 

Matthew Kupfer/CBC

McCoy said it's important to get the paperwork and updated training done for retirees now.

"So when the time comes people are ready just to mobilize they don't need to have licences renewed, that's been done," she said.

There are about 12,000 respiratory therapists across the country, about 300 of those are in Nova Scotia, according to McCoy. 

Bringing in retirees and students would add up to 700 respiratory therapists across the country.  

In a pinch, one therapist could run up to five ventilators. 

"One of their roles in that context is to tailor the style of ventilation to the patients' specific needs. So if you and I were both being ventilated we'd probably have very different lung characteristics and the RT would tailor how that breath is being delivered to make sure it meets your needs," she said. 

Submitted by Noel Pendergast

But it will take the entire health-care team to help patients with serious cases of COVID-19 recover, according to Pendergast. he said all health-care workers in Nova Scotia are working together to make that happen. 

"I think the public can have confidence in knowing that there's people working really, really hard on this and fighting for the best outcomes possible," he said.