For the fourth consecutive year, students from Gwinnett Technical College’s respiratory care program in Lawrenceville have achieved a 100 percent pass rate on the National Board for Respiratory Care’s Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exams.
“Only five programs in the nation have a running three-year total pass rate of 100 percent on these exams for all their graduates,” said Bob DeLorme, Gwinnett Tech’s respiratory care program director.
According to the Georgia Department of Labor, these newly registered respiratory therapists are entering the job market at a good time. The demand for respiratory therapists in Georgia is projected to rise from 3,440 jobs (in 2010) to 4,560 (by 2020). This means that 180 total jobs will need to be filled annually, with 110 openings due to growth (new jobs added) and 70 openings from replacements (vacancies).
The average pay for respiratory therapists in Georgia is $24.59 (hourly) and $51,100 (annually) according to the GDOL’s 2012 wage survey. Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that respiratory therapy jobs are expected to grow by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020.
Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing due to chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis or emphysema. They also provide emergency care to patients suffering who have had heart attacks, stroke, drowning or shock.
Their patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to elderly patients who have pulmonary disease. The majority of respiratory therapists work in hospitals, although they are also employed in nursing care facilities, doctors’ offices or they may travel to patients’ homes.
“In terms of career path, some RRTs work with adults, others just with neonates or pediatrics, and some with all ages,” DeLorme said. “Some work exclusively in pulmonary care, some work with sleep specialists. It’s a diverse field with a lot of niches to explore.”
The field is not without its share of excitement.
“I came from an EMT background,” DeLorme said. “It helps for a respiratory therapist to be an adrenalin jockey, because respiratory therapists are called to all of the codes (when someone goes into cardiac arrest) in the hospital. In fact, the vast majority of patients who die in a hospital will have some type of respiratory problem or will be on life support to assist their breathing.”
Gwinnett Tech’s program accepts first-time college applicants who have no previous college credits. Those who have attended college previously may be eligible to transfer credits if they meet certain criteria.
Georgia students who are taking prerequisite classes are eligible for HOPE grant funding if they qualify. Once they are admitted to an associate degree program in respiratory care, they can apply for the HOPE scholarship. The college admissions office can also help students explore options such as the Pell Grant and student loans to fund their education, DeLorme said.
Prerequisites for Gwinnett Tech’s respiratory care program include college algebra, college English, one semester of chemistry, one of physics, two semesters of human anatomy and physiology, one semester of microbiology, two electives and a computer course, DeLorme said.
“We offer everything at Gwinnett Tech that we require you to have in order to be accepted into the respiratory care program,” DeLorme said. “Our typical student comes to us because they care for people and want to help people. They want to improve their education or change careers, and very few are straight out of high school. Many are in their mid-30s.”
LaTonia Allen, 46, had been a hair stylist for more than 20 years when she decided to pursue a career in health care.
“I wanted to go into nursing, but getting into nursing school is very competitive,” Allen said. “Then I was accepted into this program and I’m so glad I did it. Respiratory care is so much more than giving breathing treatments. I loved working with the children at Egleston Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta during my clinical training. The respiratory therapists there are excellent teachers.”
Allen likes the challenge of working with parents of children who are born with heart defects in the cardiac step-down unit at Egleston. Now that she has passed her exams and completed Gwinnett Tech’s program, she wants to work there full time.
Nazif Ahmad of Atlanta has already landed a job at Emory University Hospital, where he had an externship while he was a student at Gwinnett Tech.
“I like patient care because the patients come in really sick and to see them improve is very gratifying,” Ahmad said. “I think the reason Gwinnett Tech is such a good program — one of the top six in the nation out of 600 — is because it is run professionally and what they teach us is relevant to the real world.”
With only 20 students accepted into the program annually, Gwinnett Tech’s respiratory care faculty is a close-knit group.
“Our instructors — Dr. Larry Arnson, Nadya Khoja, Kiley Hodge and Megha Patel — have been dedicated to our program. They worked hard to help the students be prepared for their exams,” DeLorme said.
“We don’t do lectures and PowerPoints,” Arnson said. “We work with equipment and technology. The second-year students help the first-year students, and professional discipline is expected from Day 1 of the program. If a student can’t make it to class, they have to call in or text before the start of class if they can’t be here, the same as they would to their employer.”
Another strength of the program, Arnson said, is that his students get 800 hours of clinical rotations in area hospitals to complement their classroom learning.
The group also has fun. Gwinnett Tech doesn’t have a cafeteria, so Arnson’s wife, Nancy, started cooking potluck lunches for all 20 students and faculty to share every day. Students seem to enjoy the camaraderie, and graduates sometimes stop by to join the lunch bunch, too.