YSU Respiratory Care Program Trains ‘Unsung Heroes’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – They care for patients at every life stage and in every medical arena, but few people understand the critical role respiratory therapists play in health care.

Kelly L. Colwell, program director of respiratory care at the Dr. Dominic A. & Helen M. Bitonte College of Health & Human Services at Youngstown State University, called them the “unsung heroes” of the health care profession. 

Most people are familiar with the work of doctors and nurses, but fewer distinguish the work of respiratory therapists.  

“Respiratory care is a specialized area of care that takes care of everybody from newborn to end of life,” Colwell said. 

Most work in critical care, “but they also work in outpatient care centers,” he said. “They work in lifeflight; they work in transport; they work in rehabilitation – so it’s a pretty broad picture for respiratory.”

The lack of understanding is changing in the aftermath of Covid-19, a respiratory disease.

Many respiratory therapists from YSU who pursue higher degrees end up working in research, clinical research, getting products to market, product sales and education.

YSU is one of three Ohio universities to offer a master’s degree in respiratory therapy and one of five to offer a bachelor’s in the field.

And respiratory therapists from YSU are in demand.

“There isn’t a week go by that I don’t have recruiters wanting to come in,” Colwell said.

Some hospital systems in other states offer $30,000 signing bonuses.

“There’s quite a shortage, and there’s a huge need,” Colwell said.

He said the university offers three respiratory care programs.

The entry-level program is a three-plus-one program that allows students to complete their bachelor’s in respiratory care and then take the required certification test. 

A second is the bachelor’s degree advancement or the completion program. Through that path, students from all over the country can complete their bachelor’s degree online. The master’s in respiratory care is 100% online as well.

“We actually have the proud distinction of the first master of respiratory in the state of Ohio,” Colwell said.

Simulation Lab

YSU is one of the first to have a simulation lab that can be used online. It was one of the ways developed to get online students engaged during Covid.

“Through our simulation lab, we can actually have the students, through simulation, interact through Zoom or WebEx” or another platform, he said. “So this just isn’t a correspondence course. Students are actually engage in real-life scenarios online.”

Students will look at patient scenarios, which helps improve decision making, Colwell said.

“They’ll look at advanced levels of ventilator management and patient management, which integrates with that,” he said. “That’s what respiratory is about. It’s about airway and ventilator management for critically ill patients.”

The lab includes a lifelike infant, preteen and adult models for students to practice. Using a computer or tablet, instructors can make the models speak or react to treatment.

And students must react to real-life scenarios. Staff members have been known to run up to students, holding the infant model and say, “Help, my baby’s choking.” Or the adult model could be in a hallway showing heart attack symptoms.

Those are the kinds of scenarios students may encounter in the field, and Colwell reasons that it’s good preparation.

There are about 90 students in the bachelor’s program and 25 in the master’s. They complete class work as well as clinical rotations in a health care facility such as a hospital or long-term care facility.

The numbers are growing as people are seeking a higher degree to pursue careers that could include leadership, management or research.

During the pandemic, hospitals limited the number of students admitted for clinical applications because of patient safety.

“So during Covid, we established our simulation lab that allows us to have this abstract thinking, allow them to have some hands-on experience, which actually has improved patient care in the absence of clinical sites,” Colwell said. 

The YSU simulation lab can record the simulation, and faculty members can debrief through an online presence. Through the lab, they can run adult and pediatric simulation simultaneously.

“That’s something that most places don’t have,” the program director said. “That’s significant because the more student exposure we can get to the scenarios, I think the better student and the better therapist we create.”

Dual simulation allows more students to log lab time concurrently.

“Our program is kind of interesting in that most respiratory care programs just kind of touch on neonatal pediatrics,” Colwell said. “We actually have courses in it, clinical rotations.

He’s also a neonatal pediatric specialist as well as a respiratory therapist.

“I saw that there was a need,” Colwell said. “If you look at infant mortality rates, especially in Mahoning County, for the last several years, it was pretty high. Working during that time, I realized that we needed to be able to take care of these babies, whatever the cause was for the infant mortality. … We had to be able to take care of these babies in a better way. And that was really the impetus to create the neonatal pediatric course for the program, and then go on to do the neonatal simulation lab.” 


Christopher Lawrence of Austintown is a junior in the respiratory care program.

“Family members who had respiratory problems throughout their lives had inspired me to pursue a career in respiratory,” he said.

This semester, Lawrence started his clinical rotation at Trumbull Regional Medical Center. He believes his time in class and the simulation lab – learning patient assessment, intubation, ventilator management and other skills – prepared him well.

“This is all stuff that we learned in the classroom, but then we also apply it in the simulation labs, and then that builds confidence and just professionalism when we apply it and take it out to the hospital with us,” Lawrence said.

Amanda Leightner, director of clinical education in the YSU respiratory care program, is in charge of placing students for the clinical rotations.

Those facilities are looking for YSU respiratory therapy students.

Facilities including Ohio State Medical Center and West Virginia University Medical Center want YSU respiratory care students to work there. 

“They definitely are in demand because our students are coming out with a baccalaureate degree, as well as having a lot of the certifications that they want out there in the field,” Leightner said. 

That includes basic life support, advanced cardiac life support, neonatal resuscitation and pediatric advanced life support. 

“They come out really highly educated,” she said.

Pictured at top: Kelly L. Colwell, left, program director of YSU Respiratory Care; Christopher Lawrence of Austintown, a junior in the program; and Amanda Leightner, clinical education director for the program, flank Hal, one of the models in the YSU simulation lab.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.