Searching for the next generation of essential respiratory therapists

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)– Respiratory therapists are being recognized as some of the front line heroes during the COViD-19 pandemic. Interest in the field has gone down, though, in recent years. Now the search is on to find and educate the next generation of therapists. Dr. Andrew Mazzoli, the program director for the respiratory therapy program at Augusta University, shares just what it takes to become a licensed respiratory therapist.

Brad Means: Dr. Mazzoli, thank you for what you do and thanks for spending some time with us today.

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: Well thank you for having us.

Brad Means: We appreciate it so much. For so long we heard about the potential for a shortage of ventilators and people were very concerned about that across the country. Now you go on the Internet or pick up the paper and you’re starting to hear about a shortage of people who know how to work those ventilators. Respiratory therapists. So my first question is, are you seeing a shortage at the university level? Are you seeing fewer people interested in the field?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: Actually we are seeing fewer people interested in the field. And that’s only been a recent trend. But we expect now with the people that are giving us some attention, that know that we’re front line, we expect that to change. So, um, yes. We’re still looking for qualified folks to become respiratory therapists and there’s plenty of opportunity. There always quite frankly has been plenty of opportunity so we at Augusta University and the College of Allied Health produce some of the best.

Brad Means: It seems like a high stress job. Not just during a pandemic but anytime you’re trying to help someone breathe it seems that way. Is there a lot of anxiety connected to this profession?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: I wouldn’t anxiety. We have a saying in the profession that says, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Brad Means: Mhm.

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: And so that’s part in parcel of what we educate our folks to do. And actually in my experience that is when everything comes right together. What you’ve learned about how people breathe and how you can help them breathe. It’s not a stress and anxiety piece but it is one that really gets the adrenaline going. And so it really, really is kind of something that has kept me in it for the better part of well, almost 50 years now.

Brad Means: You know, you hear about that, that when everything goes sideways your training kicks in and it sounds like that’s exactly what happens.

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: That is exactly what happens, Brad. There’s the slow times, the times when you can spend some time with patients at the bedside or if you work in home care you can take some time in their homes. But when it’s an emergency, things kick in. And therapists really rush to the opportunities. Not like, “Oh, no, I’ve gotta be.” That’s not the way that it is at all. When the code call comes, we rush to the opportunity. When we have to go pick up a child in one of the outlying hospitals and the respiratory therapist is in the transport team, jump in the helicopter and go. It really is. It’s one of those things that we are educated to do, trained to do, and love to do. That’s part of being at the bedside. And it’s part in parcel and our graduates know that. And our graduates do a great job of that.

Brad Means: How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist and what degree or qualifications do you need to start studying it?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: The minimum degree of becoming a respiratory therapist is an associate degree. The commission on a accreditation for a respiratory care has been more atorium on those. It will only be at the baccalaureate degree level for new therapists. Often times, for, well in our case, for baccalaureate degrees, there’s two years of prerequisite courses that have to be taken. And then there is two years of respiratory therapist courses that have to be taken. Two year programs, many have prerequisite courses before you get in. And then you complete it at the end of their curriculum. Typically another two years as well.

Brad Means: How many years do you have to be in the classroom? Is it two before you can jump over to the clinical side and start practicing on people?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: Well that’s a great question. It varies from program to program. Some programs have an introductory clinic early on, other programs have all of the laboratory and classroom front loaded and they go afterwards. We have sort of a hybrid program, we give them a lot of information in the first semester and then we send them right into the clinic. And then the final semester is all clinic. 40 hours a week for the last 15 weeks of the program. So we kind of bring it in progressively and then they’re in quite a little bit.

Brad Means: You know, during this pandemic we’re seeing those professionals, respiratory therapists and others, work such long hours. To the point of exhaustion really. Is the typical work day, when times are normal like that? Is it long and tiring or is it more like your nine to five thing?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: You know, that’s a hybrid question too. The typical therapist works three days a week, twelve hour shifts. That’s probably the most common schedule. So it’s a more balanced lifestyle. It also depends on the area that you work. For example if you’re in research, it’s typically not 12 hours. A number of RTs go into research. If you’re in the pulmonary function lab, it’s not. So on a normal day, in a normal circumstance, without the situation that we have now, life, work, balance is in place. That is the typical work day. So it’s not a nine to five, typically 12 hour shifts, starting at 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night. But we do the clinics in preparation for that so that the students know how to kind of balance their time. And we let them know before they come into the program. And the other piece too is that if you’re working, for example, some of our students have gone to the centers for disease control. If you’re working in a more office setting in positions offices, then that is typically a nine to five kind of piece as well. So it’s only in times like these where, for example, in New York people were being called out of retirement

Brad Means: Right.

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: To take care of the situation. That’s when the training programs kind of fall short. We can’t turn ’em out in two weeks. It’s just not there. There’s too much physiology, there’s too much clinical practice, there’s too much technical expertise to run these ventilators, run these life support systems, take care of the patients when they’re on there. So that takes time.

Brad Means: Well because of the pressing need that we’re seeing right now, have you had some of your students who are about to graduate, not yet, but they’re close, get called up? Get called to action?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: Well that has been common around the country. That request has not been honored here, it’s because of the safety that we wanna make sure for our students. We know that they’re perfectly capable at this juncture in their education, but we have been very cautious with respect to putting them at risk. And that’s what we wanna make sure of, that we take care of our students. And that they are, even though they’re ready, that this might not be the best time to put them in the situation that COVID-19 typically places people.

Brad Means: Dr. Mazzoli, just a couple more questions. First of all,

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: Sure.

Brad Means: What should we tell our young people who have listened to this interview and who say, “Hey, I think that’s a career for me.” What should they study in say, middle, high school. Is it all science all math?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: We have a heavy emphasis on science and math. But RTs need to be able to communicate. So written English, spoken English. Those kinds of skills are very important. Interpersonal are very important. We’ve had any number of folks who have been in the food service industry who know how to wait on people. That’s important as well. So yeah, science and math is very important. Chemistry is very important, biology is very important. But really, we’re with people 24/7. And those skills are important as well. So when we look at students for admissions, yes we look at their GPA, but we also look at a rounded person who’s willing to work with patients who are not always at their best and who are willing to, as I say, go 240 with their hair on fire when the time is needed. So we look for those kind of people. And oh, by the way, we have plenty of people that come into the profession that these are their second careers. So it’s not just young people coming out of high school, which was my case. But we have plenty of people that have been in business and industry and have come to the bedside to take care of people.

Brad Means: Doctor, you’ve logged the better part of a half of century in this field and I know countless people are grateful to you for that. What have you gotten out of it?

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: I will tell you what I get out of it. And I see it all the time. When I go to hospital and I see our graduates taking care of people. Many, many, many graduates, over and over and over again, that’s the satisfaction that I get out of being a teacher. It’s not the ah-ha moment. It’s seeing the graduates in the critical care areas taking care of patients. In the neonatal nursery. In home care. That’s what I got out of 50 years of being in this profession. And I hope others will take up the baton and carry it for another 50 years.

Brad Means: Dr. Andrew Mazzoli, you are saving and changing lives each and every day. Thank you for everything you do.

Dr. Andrew Maazzoli: It’s what we do. Thank you, sir.

Brad Means: Absolutely. Dr. Andrew Maazzoli, Augusta University’s Program Director for the respiratory therapy program.

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