Date: Wed, Jun 17th, 2020

Healthcare Hero: Great Falls College respiratory therapy graduate working on front lines in Washington state

Jacque Henry, 2019 Great Falls College MSU graduate, tells her story of working on the front-line during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic from the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane, WA.

Jacque Henry, a graduate of Great Falls College MSU's respiratory therapy program who has been working with COVID-19 patients at Spokane's Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, said her role has been intensely rewarding.

And difficult.

The 2019 Great Falls College graduate from Stanford, Montana, said seeing patients go home after battling the illness was an unbelievable feeling.

"The feeling you get when one of them gets to go home off the ventilator, and they don't have to have oxygen, it makes you feel like you made a difference because they are doing great and they get to go home and be with their families," she said. "So many people haven't been able to (go home) because of this virus."

But Henry admits it was nerve-wracking when the pandemic first hit the United States in Seattle on the other side of Washington state early this year.

"The work our graduates have done in these incredible times has been enormously gratifying to see," said Great Falls College respiratory care faculty member Brian Cayko. "The respiratory care profession has responded to this pandemic and made an incredible difference saving lives."

After a 2014 Ebola outbreak, Sacred Heart was one of 10 hospitals in the United States that received federal funding to house regional special pathogens units for people with highly infectious diseases, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, so the hospital prepared for an onslaught of patients.

The good news was Sacred Heart did not see "as many as we expected, but we did have at one time about 50 people in the hospital that had COVID," Henry said. "And our dedicated COVID ICU had anywhere from one to 20 patients. We didn't get hit nearly as hard as Seattle and some other places."

But it was stressful.

"At first it was scary," she said. "We didn't know how we were going to ventilate these patients so their lungs can rest."

It was challenging because there are so many different ways to ventilate patients, and the medical team needed to figure out the best way to treat patients.

"Eventually, we got the hang of it, but it took a lot of research," Henry said. "Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists needed to be able to work well together. Really well."

It can be frustrating, Henry said, when the media so often focuses on doctors and nurses and the work they are doing and neglect the other health care workers such as respiratory therapists, but Henry stressed she is not doing the job for the glory. "I just want to help my patients," she said.

The role of respiratory therapists is vital, Cayko said.

"Respiratory therapists are the only healthcare professional didactically and clinically trained and competency tested in the art and science of mechanical ventilation," he said.

On a personal level, Henry said it was spooky early on because another unknown of the coronavirus was how best to protect those who were working with the patients so they didn't get the disease.

"When we first started getting our wave of patients is when we were running out of PPE (personal protective equipment), and we didn't know how best to protect ourselves because we didn't know if it was (passed on by) airborne or droplet," Henry said. "There was one shift where every hour there was a new policy coming from the CDC. That was very nerve-wracking for the first few weeks."

Those concerns started to wane as researchers learned more about the disease and the wave of patients started to ebb as the work to flatten the curve started to take effect and PPE became more available.
Did the stress and the early anxiety make Henry reconsider her career choice just a year into it?

"No, I don't think so," she said, with a laugh. "I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I have thought of it, but at the same time I couldn't see myself doing anything else besides taking care of these patients regardless of what they have."

She paused for a second.

"It's all very difficult, you have to be critically thinking all of the time," Henry continued. "It's an amazing job that we do. We get to save people. We never have to worry about being out of work. We will never have to worry about that, and that's been a luxury with so many people out of work."

Prior to COVID-19, Great Falls College made the decision to put the Respiratory Therapy program in moratorium because of declining enrollment. Health providers are asking the college to reinstate the program.

Research is occurring now with college and health care partners in other communities. Current students will graduate at the end of spring semester of 2021. Now is the time for those interested in this health career to contact Great Falls College at 406-771-4300 to learn about pre-requisites courses offered by most of the two-year colleges in Montana and surrounding region.

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Record Number: 688