University of Mary
Respiratory Therapy 2020 Senior Class

BISMARCK, ND— March 17, 2020, University of Mary’s senior respiratory therapy students were about two-thirds into their final semester and nearing the end of their four years of instruction. All 12 were doing what they love and what was expected of them, caring for patients at various healthcare facilities across North Dakota, while doing their last specialty clinical rotations. It’s one of their final hurdles before they become certified and take licensure exams as RTs. On that day, they would learn that their clinicals would come to an end, but the news didn’t stop their spirit.

Dr. Christine Sperle

Meanwhile, it became more and more apparent to Dr. Chris Sperle, the director and chair of the University of Mary respiratory therapy program, that everything was about to change for these 12 students. On April 2, Sperle received an email from the state licensure board asking how many were to graduate from University of Mary’s program and mentioned they were working on temporary licensure for them to get them started in their RT careers as soon as possible in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when the students wanted to get into the fight against the pandemic, so they urged the university’s administration to confer their degrees early. On April 14, permission granted, and all 12 degrees were conferred.

“The desire for early degree conferral largely originated from the students, who, after they could no longer complete clinical hours, desired a way to help, to do something in this fight,”  said Sperle. “Their dedication to serve others in their time of need is at the heart of the University of Mary’s School of Health Sciences. Respiratory therapists that graduate from the University of Mary are prepared for this pandemic in some ways more than graduates of other programs. At the University of Mary, the dignity of the human person is embedded in the curriculum. Our graduates are taught that the ability to stand at the bedside of the sick will bring them closer to their faith as they are often the balance between doing God’s work to save a life, or to allow a patient to die with compassion and dignity. Although their clinical time was cut short, this year’s graduates still had the opportunity to spend almost 900 hours at the bedside and have been specifically trained to care for the critically ill. Our curriculum has a strong foundation of physiology with an emphasis in critical care, ethics, and leadership. They are truly servant leaders. I am not surprised by their willingness to ‘run into the fire,’ rather than run from it.”

Katherine Murphy

All 12 students had either RT jobs already lined up, ready to accept jobs, or accepted graduate school offers before the pandemic hit home and closed travel. Katherine Murphy of Helena, MT, an RT major with minors in biology and chemistry, accepted a position with Vibra Hospitals of Central Dakotas — a long term acute care facility that was already short staffed with RTs — in early March, and begins her position next week.

“I’ll be responsible for monitoring patients for any signs of respiratory distress or illness,” said Murphy. “In this facility, visitors are monitored and COVID-19 hopefully won’t become an issue. If it did get into the facility, I’d be in charge of managing the ventilators for any patients affected by it as well as making sure it isn’t spread throughout the hospital.”

Vibra Hospital in Fargo hired Hazelton, ND, native Kendra Grossman, just four days after her degree was conferred.

Kendra Grossman

“I am spending my days working to liberate patients from their long-term use of ventilators, trachs and other respiratory measures that were needed in order to keep them alive,” said Grossman. “I feel like I am spending my time giving my patients the encouragement to continue improving themselves in order to return to their lives after having their lives turned upside down due to a health crisis. This allowed me the opportunity to use my knowledge and skills sooner than I had ever imagined. I was able to start working as a respiratory therapist just days after it was announced that we were conferred. I am so proud to be working as a respiratory therapist in these challenging times. I have been prepared for this. I am ready to face whatever may happen during, and whatever may come out of this pandemic.”

Compounding the problem, there was already a lack of ventilators across America’s healthcare facilities, especially of the most up-to-date models, and a massive shortage of RTs who know how to run the machines.

“Everything happened quickly and changed by the hour once we knew our RT students were needed on the front lines,” added Sperle. “We quickly put together COVID-19 training modules for our students to learn more about the virus and the ever changing guidelines for caring for these patients. We also provided them with information on how to use the ventilators that are in the national stockpile. The ventilators in the national stockpile are older models and are mostly transport ventilators without the bells and whistles of the newer ventilators most of us are used to working with. I guess you could compare the different ventilators with cars. They all do the same thing, just differently and some with more options than others. One can easily drive any car, it just takes a little practice to learn how to use the different options that are available. With the stockpiled ventilators, one analogy would be adjusting to using roll-up window rather than powered windows.”

“People on mechanical ventilation are as sick as they can get and if not properly managed these machines can cause more damage,” added Grossman. “RT’s are the experts in these machines and in the mechanics of the pulmonary system. We are trained in every aspect of respiratory care in order to prevent any further damage to our patients.”

Jordyn Fairaizl from Mandan is working as a PRN at Sanford Health in Bismarck before she receives the green light to travel across state lines to work at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Mikaylah Ross, of Valley City, ND, and two of her classmates were hired to work as RTs at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, when travel bans are lifted.

“The University of Mary is a prime recruiting ground for Mayo Clinic over the past several years,” said Sperle. “Mayo loves our grads and has hired many throughout the years. Last year four of nine went to Mayo, one chose Mayo over the Cleveland Clinic. I believe four from our 2018 class are working at Mayo as well. One of our faculty, Shawn Small, a grad of our program, also worked at Mayo before coming back to Bismarck to teach in our program.”

The CHI St. Alexius Health/ University of Mary Respiratory Therapy program is a premier and nationally recognized program. The national accrediting body, Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC), recently bestowed its Distinguished RRT Credentialing Success Award to the University of Mary program for the sixth time in eight years. From a program effectiveness perspective, the CoARC views the RRT credential as a measure of a program’s success in inspiring its graduates to achieve their highest educational and professional aspirations. One hundred forty nine out of 430 programs received the RRT Credentialing Success Award in 2019, only 26 programs have received the award six  times like the University of Mary has accomplished.

Awards and national acclaim aside, Ross believes there is even more to like about the university and soon to be named St. Gianna School of Health Sciences at Mary.

Mikaylah Ross

“Throughout my four years at Mary, I have experienced many opportunities to go out into the community and serve for the betterment of others. This feels, in a way, like another opportunity to try and use my education and skills in the service of others.Being in the respiratory therapy program has taught me to expect the unexpected. Not that I was taught to expect a global pandemic to hit during my senior year, but that being a respiratory therapist often means being ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. I know that the RT program has given me the skills and knowledge it takes to be a good RT, but having the courage to adapt and overcome in difficult situations is what they have worked to prepare us for.”

Sure, there is no graduation ceremony this year, their clinicals cut short, and licensure exams and careers put on hold, for now, so they can fight the war against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, none of them would trade it in for the hands-on experience they are now receiving, and the immediate care they are able to provide to their patients in North Dakota and around the country. That’s just not something that can be taught in the classroom or assessed in a final exam.

Interested in the University of Mary RT program, visit http://umary.edu/RT.