New apprenticeship pays respiratory therapy students to learn

A woman moves a ventilator machine down a hallway at a hospital.
Respiratory therapist Shaunda Thibodeaux moves a ventilator unit through the hallway of the ICU at Ochsner Lafayette General Hospital on Friday Nov. 17, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

With twenty years as a respiratory therapist under her belt, there isn’t much that throws Shaunda Thibodeaux for a loop. Still, nothing could have prepared her for the chaos brought on by the pandemic.

Truly, it’s all a blur, Thibodeaux said. She doesn’t remember how many patients she’d care for each day, just that there were a lot. “And if we saw them, they were extremely sick,” she remembered. “There wasn’t enough of us in the hospital, we needed to be in multiple areas at one time.”

The pandemic made obvious a challenge hospitals have long faced: a shortage of respiratory therapists. A recent study by the American Association for Respiratory Care found that high rates of therapists reaching retirement age, widespread burnout and a decrease in education program enrollment all play a role.

A woman and a man are looking at a computer screen and talking.
Shaunda Thibodeaux and fellow respiratory therapist Billy Boudreaux review therapy orders for a patient at Ochsner Lafayette General Hospital Friday Nov. 17, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there will be a 23-percent increase in respiratory therapy positions by 2030.

A new program conceived by Ochsner Lafayette General and LSU Eunice during the pandemic and officially launched this month aims to court students to the profession by allowing students to “earn while they learn” in a paid apprenticeship program that combines classes at LSUE and clinical training at Ochsner.

“Respiratory therapy has always been a difficult, hard-to-fill position,” said the hospital’s CEO Patrick Gandy. “But as we went through the pandemic, that really only magnified the problems that we were having.”

For the time being, the hospital had to make up for the shortage of therapists on staff by hiring contract workers, similar to the travel nurses that helped fill gaps at hospitals across the country during the pandemic and the onslaught of patients it brought.

“We value our agency, staffing personnel, but we want to have full time employees that are here day in and day out committed to the institution, because we feel that that provides better care, better stability for our organization and for our patients,” Gandy said.

While Ochsner faces some costs upfront — students receive a $10,000 completion bonus to help with any costs they may face while completing the program — Gandy said he thinks the investment will pay out in the long run.

A man in a suit stands on a podium.
Lafayette General Hospital CEO Patrick Gandy speaks from the podium inside LSU Eunice’s Health Tech Building Auditorium on Tuesday Nov. 14, 2023, in Eunice, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

“Our number one goal, whether it is respiratory therapy for nursing, or surgical technology, is to ensure that we have full-time staff so we can decrease the amount of agency staff that we have,” Gandy explained. “It’ll decrease our expenses, but also allow us to offer better care.”

For Victoria Roshto, one of the first two students to participate in the program during its recently started pilot run, the financial aid was a significant incentive. “The financial support helps tremendously,” Roshto said. “It makes it possible to really focus on your studies, and not that sense of not knowing if you can make the next tuition statement or the next meal.”

Roshto’s father works as a levee board patrolman and her mom recently became a dispatcher for the St. Tammany Parish Fire Department. With her two younger siblings to take care of, fully funding her education would have been a challenge for the family, Roshto said.

A young woman in purple scrubs stands in front of a building.
Respiratory therapy student Victoria Roshto stands in from of the Health Tech Building at LSU Eunice on Tuesday Nov. 14, 2023, in Eunice, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

“Both of them work very hard, and also help people,” she said of her parents. “I guess it’s just something that runs in the family: the urgency, the need to help.”

Moving through her clinical training at Ochsner Lafayette General, Roshto said she’s found a true passion for the job. “Being there for the people, whether it’s listening or actually taking care of someone, and helping them get on getting on that right track to getting better is just so rewarding,” the 20-year-old said.

Allowing students from diverse backgrounds to enter the profession by easing the financial burden is another benefit created by the program, says LSU Eunice Chancellor Dr. Nancee Sorenson.

“It is critically important that our healthcare workforce looks like and has many of the same experiences as the people it serves,” Sorenson said in a press release announcing the launch of the program, which had been three years in the making.. “This partnership aims to combat some of those disparities while offering generational change for the students in the program through higher earning potential and better quality of life.”