Helping you breathe easier


Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s a simple reflex most people take for granted until a crisis — cardiac arrest, an asthma attack, an accident, pulmonary disease – stops it. For as the Canadian Lung Association says, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Canada’s respiratory therapists would certainly agree. It’s their job to ensure that anyone whose breathing is substandard or has been interrupted gets oxygen, and the other gases humans breathe, back into the patient’s lungs in a timely and physiologically appropriate way.

Frequently, that’s no easy task. Nor is, unsurprisingly, the training respiratory therapists have to take at one of Ontario’s five colleges that teach the applied health specialty.

In Toronto, it’s the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences where students embark on a tough two or three-year program that is always over subscribed.

Monica Reilly, dean of laboratory sciences and therapeutics at the Michener and a respiratory therapist herself, doesn’t beat around the bush: “It is very competitive,” she cautions, with about 10 applicants for every place the Michener can offer.

Karyn Holowaty, one of Reilly’s first year students, couldn’t agree more. “I have to say I find the program very challenging,” she says.

Student respiratory therapists at the Michener have two options. The first is a three-year diploma program that accepts high school graduate applicants with credits in math, English, biology, physics and chemistry.

Paula Burns, a curriculum consultant at the Michener and a respiratory therapy graduate of Fanshawe College in London, Ont., (other programs are offered at Canadore College in North Bay and Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale, both in Ottawa) says about 10% of diploma stream students come straight from high school, with the rest having some university education or a completed degree.

The second option at the Michener is a joint degree program. Students spend their first two years studying kinesiology at the University of Waterloo or life sciences at Queen’s University — with six-week “intrasessions” at the Michener that begin in May — before moving to the institute full time.

Regardless of the stream, however, having at least some university education seems the applicant’s best bet. Reilly points out about 80% of her respiratory therapy students have attended university and two-thirds have a degree.

The age range in the diploma program is from 18 to the late 30s, Burns says. In the joint degree program it’s far narrower, of course, from the early to mid-20s. There are 64 students in both streams at the Michener this year, and although they attract men and women, the student body is largely female at about 75% to 85%. Tuition fees at the Michener are $2,800 a year.

As an example of what’s expected from students at the institute, Reilly cites some of the subjects they will study in their first semester. There’s anatomy, physiology, microbiology, an introduction to instrumentation that is heavy on the math and physics, the laws of various gases and fluid dynamics. In the second semester, they study such subjects as the cardio-pulmonary system and muscle groups as well as technical matters such as mechanical ventilation. Students spend about six hours a day in class.

Although she concedes it’s a slog, Holowaty couldn’t be happier at the Michener. She graduated from Queen’s in 1996 with a degree in psychology and biology, and in 1997 was certified as a paramedic at Humber College in Toronto. A job injury she sustained while working as a paramedic in Durham Region meant she had to give that up, so she turned to teaching. But her former field remained attractive.

“I really, really missed health. I realized I was not doing what I loved,” she says.

But why respiratory therapy? Holowaty says she didn’t want to go to medical school because of the seven years it would take and the time pressures doctors face.

“I really enjoy the patient care,” she says, but she didn’t find nursing attractive. “I had worked closely with respiratory therapists in emergency (as a paramedic) and I was seeing respiratory therapy first hand.”

As a paramedic, she says she never knew what to expect, and a good part of what attracts her to respiratory therapy is its unpredictability.

The job may be unpredictable, as Holowaty says, but her and her fellow students’ career prospects look exceptionally good and stable.

Burns says more than 90% of Michener graduates find employment in the field and in the last couple of years the job market has opened up. Respiratory therapists can work in hospitals, clinics, long-term pulmonary rehabilitation, homes for the elderly, in homecare or as an educator dealing with diseases such as asthma. They are licensed and regulated by the College of Respiratory Therapists of Ontario.

A new graduate will earn between $20 and $22 an hour in Toronto, Burns says, and a staff therapist at a hospital will make $30 an hour. Senior therapists will earn even more, perhaps as much as $75,000 a year.