Sarah Pelke wearing a protective face mask

Health Professions Education

Bellarmine prepares respiratory therapists for battle on the front lines

Master of Health Science

Lauren Jones has been a respiratory therapist for 13 years, but she has trouble putting into words what it has been like to work in a hospital during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Jones, who graduated from Bellarmine with a degree in respiratory therapy in 2007 and earned an MHS in Healthcare Leadership in 2019. “We are seeing and treating some of the sickest patients we’ve ever seen. We are at their bedside managing their ventilators, providing reassurance and comfort as they struggle to breathe.”

Respiratory therapists, who have training and expertise in the diagnosis, treatment and management of cardiopulmonary diseases, are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic as the disease attacks the lungs and respiratory systems, causing poor oxygenation levels throughout the body. In severe cases, patients are placed on a ventilator, which moves breathable air into and out of the lungs.

“That’s why we are getting so much press now. Any time a patient is on breathing treatments or oxygen, we manage that—and in acute care, we manage the ventilators,” said Dr. Christy Kane, chair of Bellarmine’s Respiratory Therapy and Ph.D. in Health Professions Education programs.

“Each patient has a nurse and a respiratory therapist. But we are much smaller in number. That’s the issue during this pandemic—who’s going to manage the ventilators. The hospitals are inundated. They are having 30 or 40 of these patients instead of the couple they would normally have.”

Lauren Jones stands next to a respirator

Jones, who has worked at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Louisville for seven years and worked at Norton Children’s Hospital for the six years before that, said that being able to adapt, improvise and think critically, skills she learned in Bellarmine’s Respiratory Therapy Program, has never been more important than in the pandemic’s ever-changing conditions.

Students in the program complete more than 800 hours of clinical experience across varying patient populations through intensive care unit, neonatal intensive care unit, pediatric intensive care unit, emergency room, sleep laboratory, home care, pulmonary clinic, and trauma center experiences.

“That training consistently required that I learn to ‘think on my toes,’ to not only memorize the information given to me, but to be able to apply it in real-world clinical scenarios that are not always textbook-ideal,” Jones said.

She also learned that patient care means caring for the whole person. “I learned the value in a soft touch, a reassuring voice and extra time spent with a patient to hear their concerns and worries and answer their questions. The patients we are caring for during this pandemic need this type of care from all providers they encounter,” she said. “They are in the hospital alone and scared, and it’s the compassionate care that’s offered to them that will help carry them along on their road to recovery.” 

Like Jones, Sarah Pehlke, another respiratory therapist at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital, said the pandemic has brought a “wave of change to our lives and to our clinical practice.”

“Our purpose as respiratory therapists has not changed, but what we are doing to achieve these goals has escalated in many ways,” said Pehlke, who graduated with a bachelor’s in respiratory therapy in May 2013 and an MHS in Education in December 2016. “Some of my coworkers have gone above and beyond to be there for individuals on a personal level while they are critically ill, at a time when family are not able to be physically present. This can be extremely emotional, but for many of us, it is our calling.”

“They are in the hospital alone and scared, and it’s the compassionate care that’s offered to them that will help carry them along on their road to recovery.”

Norton is taking additional precautions to protect frontline staff, she said. “Overall, staff feel determined, focused and apprehensive. This can an emotional time for healthcare professionals who are working to do their best during their shifts while trying to stay safe and healthy for their families.

Her time as a student at Bellarmine, she said, prepared her “to evaluate the latest evidence, navigate difficult conversations and make complex clinical decisions. It prepared me to be compassionate and resilient, which has facilitated my ability to be a better healthcare provider to my patients and a more supportive member to the patient care team.”

Both Pehlke and Jones are arming future respiratory therapists with the same skills as full-time faculty members in Bellarmine’s program. Dr. Kane, the third full-time faculty member, said that 70 to 80 percent of the adjunct, or part-time, faculty members are also practicing respiratory therapists.

“We have a very engaged faculty,” she said. “We give our students lots of individual attention. Literally, we are tutoring students all the time.”

One hundred percent of Bellarmine’s respiratory therapy graduates get jobs, she said. In fact, many land full-time jobs before they graduate.

Among those were five students at Norton Hospital who were allowed to function as full respiratory therapists under the state of emergency that Gov. Andy Beshear declared due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “Our students are out in the middle of it right now,” Dr. Kane said.

“The students employed as student respiratory therapists at Norton Hospital have demonstrated excellence in the profession during this crisis by using time away from school due to the state of emergency to serve our patients by picking up additional shifts not previously scheduled,” said Lee Wisdom, manager of Respiratory Therapy and Vascular Access at Norton Hospital and another Bellarmine graduate—he earned his bachelor’s in respiratory therapy in 2015 and his master’s in Healthcare Leadership in 2017 and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Health Professions Education.

“As a Bellarmine graduate, I can speak with certainty in saying that my Bellarmine education adequately prepared me to provide care with my team on the front line as a respiratory therapist and lead my team through the frequent, significant changes that have taken place in response to COVID-19,” Wisdom said. “The undergraduate respiratory therapy degree from Bellarmine prepares students entering the workforce upon graduation with the necessary skills needed to quickly adapt to care for all types of patients, and that has been particularly helpful during this COVID-19 crisis as students were prepared and willing to begin caring for critical care patients much sooner, if needed.”

"It prepared me to be compassionate and resilient, which has facilitated my ability to be a better healthcare provider to my patients and a more supportive member to the patient care team.”

Both Jones and Pehlke said they are proud to be on the front lines fighting the virus.

“Some days can be mentally and emotionally draining, but we see a little bit of hope in each day,” Jones said. “There are days we are able to celebrate with patients as they are successfully removed from the ventilator and transferred out of intensive care, and days where we watch patients leave the hospital to return home to their families.

“Every day I continue to be inspired by my coworkers, patients and members of the community as we all come together to continue to endure this battle. I have always been proud to be a respiratory therapist, but I am even more so as I continue to experience firsthand the impact my profession has in fighting this pandemic.” 

Written by Carla Carlton

Header Photo: Sarah Pehlke sporting a protective facemask
Story Photo: Lauren Jones stands next to a ventilator

Tags: Health Professions Education , Health Sciences , Healthcare , Respiratory Therapy



Located in the historic Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, Bellarmine University is a vibrant community of educational excellence and ethical awareness that consistently ranks among the nation’s best colleges and universities. Our students pursue an education based in the liberal arts – and in the distinguished, inclusive Catholic tradition of educational excellence, the oldest and most rewarding in the western world. It is a lifelong education, worthy of the university’s namesake, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and of his invitation to each of us to learn and live In Veritatis Amore – in the love of all that is beautiful, true and good in life.