Leann Ritchie enrolled at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester four years ago to study respiratory therapy, a field she chose because of her grandfather, a retired firefighter.
“He had cancer of the throat, so he had to get his voice box removed,” Ritchie, 21, recalled. “Usually, some people have the little device that helps them to talk, and it sounds like a robot, but he wanted to talk naturally. Every time he’d have to go to the hospital, they would always need a respiratory therapist to help with breathing treatments.”
Quinsigamond is one of five community colleges in the state on track to graduate a total of 63 therapists this spring, according to a WGBH News survey of the schools. Many of the presumptive graduates could soon find themselves on the frontlines of this pandemic, operating ventilators to try to save the lives of the patients most seriously afflicted with COVID-19. College administrators say so few students enroll in these programs because they are rigorous and selective.
The students completing their training to run the breathing machines would represent a small corps of reinforcements. The state reports that there are 3,136 fully-licensed respiratory therapists in Massachusetts. The state Department of Public Health is not granting provisional licenses to students, as it has done with final-year medical students, according to Ann Scales, a spokeswoman.
“Respiratory therapist is sort of a new profession,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders.
Speaking to reporters last week, Sudders acknowledged the state could use more therapists but she pointed out that some nurses are also trained to operate ventilators, which soon could be in short supply.
“We are hoping that between respiratory therapists and nurse anesthesiologists, you’d have the capacity to use them,” she said. “Honestly, I want to get the ventilators in Massachusetts and then figure out what we need for staffing in order to use them.”
Former homeland security official and WGBH News contributor Juliette Kayyem said she worries the state is heading towards an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 patients that could overwhelm hospitals, and even if Massachusetts does receive hundreds of ventilators requested from the federal government, the state won’t have enough staff to operate them.
“We need to identify in this state what we have, what we need and then fill the gap between those two and begin to fill it now,” Kayyem told WGBH News. “You can have a ventilator, but if you don't have anyone to work it, you are at a real loss.”
In response to the coronavirus crisis, for the first time, Quinsigamond Community College convinced accreditors last month to allow its second-year respiratory therapy students to do their clinical training while also being employed by local hospitals. Their hours working will count toward their associate degrees.
Luis Pedraja, Quinsagamond's president, said the respiratory program shows the vital role two-year colleges play in training the state’s workforce and a reason that Gov. Charlie Baker deemed community colleges essential when he declared a state of emergency on March 10.
“Most of our students enter the workforce instantly and they take care of our community,” Pedraja said. “We provide the people that make the community run, and they all are local.”
Besides Quinsigamond, the state's community colleges slated to graduate respiratory therapists this year are Massasoit in Brockton, North Shore in Danvers, Northern Essex in Haverhill and Springfield Technical. Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield accepts a class every two years, so it does not have students set to graduate. Northeastern University had an online graduate program for already-trained therapists until 2006, when it was closed. The school's press office did not respond to a question about the reasons for the closure.
Quinsigamond’s second-year respiratory students are currently working at local hospitals as part of their clinical training. Some of the first-year students are preparing to volunteer at a field hospital inside Worcester’s DCU Center.
“It’s exciting, but makes me a little nervous,” Ritchie said. She is working at Harrington Hospital in Southbridge, but not running any of the ventilators by herself, yet.
“I’m assisting,” she said. “I can’t do anything alone until I’m checked off for my competencies.”
Still, Ritchie said she has received emails from other hospitals desperate for her skills.
“It’s good to know that respiratory therapists are needed now and actually being recognized, instead of just doctors and nurses,” she said.
WGBH News intern Mackenzie Farkus contributed to this report.