OFTC Respiratory Instructor & Graduates Serve on COVID-19 Frontlines

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia, hundreds of nurses, first responders, and other emergency medical personnel stepped up, including an Oconee Fall Line Technical College (OFTC) Respiratory Care instructor and four of her graduates.

“I’ve been a respiratory therapist since 1995 and have never seen anything like COVID-19,” shared Natalie Smith, an OFTC Respiratory Care instructor.

Smith was truly on the front lines of the pandemic, serving a Georgia hotspot at Phoebe Memorial Hospital in Albany.

“I can’t put into words just how horrible it has been,” she added. “Patients who were fine one minute were on the ventilator the next, and with no one at their bedside because it wasn’t allowed.”

Smith said it was through the prayers of others and aid from the National Guard and GEMA that allowed them to serve their patients.

“In early March we ran out of almost everything,” she said. “We were borrowing equipment from wherever we could.”

OFTC was one of many technical colleges across the state who lent their ventilators to GEMA to help patients in need. Not only was Smith proud that her employer was aiding a need, she found herself directly impacted by a donation from a sister college in Lawrenceville.

“People don’t understand what these donations truly mean until you pull the last PB980 ventilator out of the equipment room, drag it to the ICU, go to turn it on and see hand written ‘Gwinnett Technical College’ on the back of the vent.”

“My eyes literally teared up,” Smith said. “I’ve been teaching for 20 years and saw our equipment as just equipment; but here was a Technical College System of Georgia piece of equipment that was going to save someone’s life.”

Prepared for the Field

Four OFTC graduates served on the front lines with Smith at Phoebe Memorial Hospital: Chad Keown graduated in 2016 and works in Emergency Care and the Intensive Care Unit (ICU); Brittany Bryant, also a 2016 graduate works as a Charge Therapist; Kimberly Hall and Valeria Zanders both graduated in 2017 and work in Emergency Care and the ICU.

“One thing that has only become more real to me since working alongside these graduates at Phoebe is that we train some amazing respiratory therapists,” Smith said. “They make OFTC great. Not only am I proud they are our graduates, I am so incredibly thankful they are my coworkers.”

In OFTC’s program, Smith said students are prepared for the field with a focus on both knowledge and hands-on skills training. “They not only get the regular classroom lectures, but they get over 1,000 hours of hands on learning between lab and clinicals.

Students in OFTC’s Respiratory Care program start in the hospital setting their first semester and gain a variety of experiences working with acute/critical care in adults, pediatrics, and neonates, in pulmonary rehabilitation, home care and hospice, the pulmonary function testing lab, in sleep study rotation, in intubation rotation, and more.

“OFTC definitely prepared me for the pandemic we are facing now,” Zanders said. “I never thought in a million years that I would have to use all the skills and knowledge that was taught to me at OFTC. I once thought that some of the things we learned were useless; but when COVID-19 surfaced, everything that was installed in me was useful.”

“I am truly thankful for the instructors and their desire and willingness to make me learn as much as possible and to push me to be the therapist I am today,” she added. “OFTC is an awesome college.”

OFTC’s respiratory students are also prepared with certifications in BLS, ACLS, PALS, and NRP which are all certifications employers desire when hiring therapists.

“We even offer yearly board exam review seminars prior to graduation, help our students write their resumes, practice for interviews, and complete their application for their respiratory licensure,” Smith added.

“I believe our students and graduates know we truly care about them,” she said. “They don’t just graduate, find jobs, and move on, never to be heard from again. We form lasting relationships with the graduates who come through our program, evidenced by the fact some may end up as your co-workers.”

“OFTC’s program gave me the best possible foundation to go up against something that was this unprecedented,” Bryant shared in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Being able to work side by side with some fellow graduates gave me the confidence that we would be able to make it to the other side of such a horrible pandemic.”

“I’ve been able to not only work with classmates, but also with my past program’s director,” she added. “It’s given me something to rely on when facing something as horrible as COVID-19. Working at Phoebe Memorial Hospital has been an experience I never would have anticipated but feel lucky to be one of the few on the frontlines during something this historical.”

For more info on OFTC’s Respiratory Care program, visit the College’s website, OFTC.edu.

OFTC Respiratory graduates, Chad Keown (L) and Brittney Bryant (R), have been working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Albany, Ga.

Chad Keown (L) and Brittney Bryant (R)

Kimberly Hall has been working the COVID-19 frontlines in Albany

Kimberly Hall

Zanders has been working the COVID-19 frontlines in Albany

Valeria Zanders

Smith has been working the COVID-19 frontlines in Albany

Natalie Smith, OFTC instructor.