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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SCC graduate sought hard-hit respiratory therapy career during COVID pandemic: ‘This is where I need to be’

Jessica Murphy, left, stands in a teaching lab May 16 at Spokane Community College, where respiratory therapists are trained. Murphy, who completed her degree in respiratory care, is preparing to graduate next month. She is already working full time in the field. Toni D’Amato, right, is the program director and teaches half of the classes.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Jessica Murphy heard the stories describing how hard-hit respiratory therapists were among the hospital workers who battled the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The therapists manned the ventilators for breathing when the virus caused respiratory and cardiovascular issues. They braced for the many COVID-19 deaths. In the months as workforce shortages rose, large numbers left the field, retired or took travel jobs.

When the pandemic delayed her dental hygiene classes, Murphy felt drawn to run toward those challenges. She chose to enter Spokane Community College’s four-year bachelor of applied science in respiratory care in fall 2021.

“I knew it was a respiratory pandemic, and I thought, that’s the job that I need to go into,” said Murphy, who completed that SCC program in December.

She and her classmates will walk in the college’s June 14 graduation.

“I just wanted to help, and I jumped right in. It didn’t really scare me because I thought it was interesting. I’ve kind of always been drawn to hard things. I was a dental assistant before, and I got bored just doing general care.”

Here and nationally, there’s an urgent need for more people like Murphy, with an industry estimate of 150,000 new therapists needed to fill gaps by 2030.

More than 100 million Americans are affected by respiratory disorders, according to Those conditions include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma, long-term COVID, bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis and any airway abnormality.

Murphy, 35, studied for her new career while still working as a dental assistant and being a mom to a son, 10, and daughter, 7. The family lives in Suncrest.

In March, Murphy began a night shift job as a respiratory therapist in the pediatric intensive care unit at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. She’s also training to do some work in the neonatal unit.

Although children weren’t as affected by COVID-19, Murphy said, her work today has plenty of challenges.

“The PICU is the hardest unit to work in, because you have to know what’s needed from a 2-day-old baby to an 18-year-old, and everything in between,” she said.

“You really have to be on your game and use critical thinking, but that’s what draws me to it.”

Murphy works on environmental and asthma issues, along with care after babies have had heart surgeries.

“All open-heart babies are usually on ventilators, so we are always doing ventilator checks on really critical babies,” Murphy added. “They use nitric oxide, a gas that we use to kind of equal out heart and lung issues, and we’re trained to use that equipment.”

She felt drawn to pediatric care during a Sacred Heart clinical rotation, when she watched a respiratory therapist and nurses run bedside to a 2-year-old boy, on a ventilator, in the moments before his death.

“There was so much love in that room, so much light and joy in a dark moment,” she said. “I said, ‘This is where I need to be.’ Being a mom myself, I thought if anything ever happened and if I was not able to be there, they would not feel scared or alone.

“Death doesn’t have to be scary. I’ve seen so many peaceful passings, and it’s not sad. There are tears, but it’s different tears because you’re happy that they’re not suffering any more. You’re happy because they’re in a better place. You’re happy you could be there for them.

Still, Murphy acknowledged it “definitely takes a certain personality to do it.”

“I’ve had struggles with it, too, but you talk your way through it or cry your way through it. You’ll be there for the next one.”

Respiratory therapists also do breathing treatments for patients, or inhaled medication delivery, such as for severe asthma. If patients are intubated, they monitor equipment and ensure tubes haven’t dislodged, she said.

They also respond to “code blue,” calls for when a patient is in cardiac or respiratory arrest, and therapists maintain the patient’s breathing, artificial airway and perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

In 2017, the SCC program transitioned from a two-year associate’s degree to the bachelor’s track. SCC offers the only respiratory therapist education in Eastern Washington, and is one of five in the state, said program director Toni D’Amato. Other locations are in the Seattle-Tacoma area, in Boise and Pocatello, Idaho, and in Montana.

SCC students must first complete 45 general education credits and then apply for the program, with 135 credits in nine quarters, including summers. Entering the program as sophomores, they study two and a half years.

They also complete 900 hours of clinical rotations in all area hospitals. SCC has had 20 applicants start each fall the past three years. Typically, 16 to 19 students graduate each spring.

D’Amato said their job offers typically come in the weeks ahead of graduation. In recent years, to attract more applicants, area hospitals began offering paid internships to SCC students as they finish their classes.

Months into COVID, Providence’s Inland Northwest hospital system lost enough workers to have 22 open respiratory therapist slots in 2020, said Meg Lindsay, Providence regional workforce development program manager.

“We attritioned during the pandemic, and then many of those who stayed left as soon as the pandemic was over,” Lindsay said. “That was quite a shift for us, because we had averaged around four to six openings prior to COVID.

“I’m happy to report that we are currently at five open RT positions, and we believe that’s due to in part to our respiratory therapy internship program.”

The state has over 3,600 licensed respiratory therapists, including out-of-state residents who work in Washington, D’Amato said. She added that here and nationally, new hiring needs to happen faster.

Three respiratory therapy professional bodies compiled recent data showing a nationwide 27% decrease in respiratory therapist educational program enrollment since 2010. Only 10% of U.S. programs are at capacity, and retirements are far outpacing any growth.

“More than 92,000 RTs are going to leave the field by 2030,” D’Amato said.

“We’re now having education recruitment issues nationwide. People don’t know what a respiratory therapist is, and we get confused with nursing all the time or other health care professionals. We have a hard time filling the programs, which means we have a hard time getting graduates out there to fill all the vacancies.”

Away from work, Murphy teaches multiple CPR classes and babysitter education sessions in the Suncrest area and Stevens County, where she said it can sometimes take 30 minutes before emergency responders can arrive.

She often advocates for people to enter her new field through her committee leadership role with the Respiratory Care Society of Washington.

Murphy said one strategy is to educate more students early about the variety of career choices if they don’t want to work in a hospital. Therapists can do home health care, research, diagnostic work or even an emerging advanced practice respiratory therapist career.

“I think what’s going to help these numbers is getting students excited about going into the field and in saving lives,” Murphy said.

“You have to start when they’re still in school for understanding what they’re going into, and how much of a difference they’re going to make.”