Respiratory therapy

Respiratory therapists Haley Williams RRT and Stacey Gamble RRT work with a piece a respiratory equipment at RMC in Anniston. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

There are very few things scarier than not being able to breathe, says Ed Goodwin, director of respiratory therapy at Regional Medical Center.

“A lot of times with us, it is life or death,” Goodwin, who manages 42 respiratory therapists charged with keeping folks at the Anniston hospital breathing, said by phone Tuesday.

Jacksonville State University plans soon to train students how to do just that, as well as to treat other illnesses that affect the heart and lungs. The university announced Monday a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy has been approved by the state’s higher education commission. Goodwin, who decided to partner with JSU to help develop the course after another university shuttered its own program, views it as a convenient training ground for future employees in a field that’s shown a strong possibility for growth.

The JSU program on Sept. 11 was approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, according to Christie Shelton, dean of the College of Nursing.

Shelton said JSU also intends to seek approval from the state commission for a doctorate program for nurse practitioners, and may see that course approved within a month.

The therapy program must now be reviewed by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care, Shelton said by phone Tuesday. The commission is a nonprofit organization tasked with accrediting respiratory degree programs. The dean said the group is set to rule on JSU’s respiratory therapy program in November.

“I look for it to be more procedural than anything,” Shelton said, “if you provide the evidence they ask, and we did that.”

If accredited, the university’s course would be the sixth such program in the state — and only the second to offer a bachelor’s degree, according to the dean. The program likely won’t be ready to accept students until spring 2017, though.

While there are programs through which students can earn an associate’s degree in the field, the only other bachelor’s degree program is offered by the University of South Alabama.

An associate’s degree in respiratory therapy is adequate, Shelton said — but as with most other careers, more education is always an advantage.

“The push in the industry is to move toward the bachelor level — that’s health care wide,” said Goodwin. “The hope is, bachelors will help train these students more toward leadership roles, management roles.”

Goodwin, a 1993 University of Alabama at Birmingham graduate, has been director of RMC’s respiratory therapy department since 2010. His employees treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, among other illnesses.

When a patient stops breathing — known as “coding” or “crashing” — a respiratory therapist is one of the first to respond.

Goodwin’s alma mater in 2011 announced an end to its own bachelor’s respiratory therapy program.

According to Bob Shepard, manager of media relations for UAB, the university decided to shutter the program in order to focus on other areas of study.

“The decision basically was, ‘We don’t need to do that,’” Shepard said by phone Tuesday. “We can do the other kinds of things that only we can do,” such as clinical training and research.

Because RMC often recruited students from the Birmingham university, Goodwin decided to suggest JSU start its own program.

“It’s future recruitment for us,” he said. “You have staff that retire, or move on to something else, so you ... have to have a future.”

Goodwin believes the profession is growing fast enough that there will be plenty of JSU graduates to go around — all of the hospitals in the area, to his knowledge, have openings for therapists.

That’s why JSU was interested in setting up the program, Shelton said.

“We looked at the data, at the need, and talked with respiratory therapy experts — directors from here to Gadsden to Birmingham, all the way to Huntsville,” the dean said. “They indicated they definitely have a need.”

Students also seem to be interested in the field. Shelton says a handful have asked her when the program will be available, and if they can declare it as their major before then.

“That’s without major advertising or promotion,” she said. “We don’t even have a website yet.”

Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.