Virtual talk brings students to front lines of healthcare

Muscatine High School students listen to a virtual presentation by University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics respiratory therapist Melissa Forsythe.

MUSCATINE, Iowa–Typically, Muscatine High School anatomy and physiology teacher Justin Johnson makes a point of taking his students on field trips to bring what they study in class to life and to let them see first hand what healthcare professionals do. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, visiting healthcare facilities and traveling off school grounds did not prove feasible. However, a surprising connection with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics allowed Johnson to connect his students virtually with Melissa Forsythe, a respiratory therapist on the frontlines of treating COVID-19 patients.

One of Johnson’s cousins who works at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics intensive care unit came to know Forsythe well when his father contracted a severe case of COVID-19 and required a ventilator as part of his treatment. When Johnson heard this story and about Forsythe’s role in assisting critically ill COVID-19 patients, he knew he wanted her to talk to his students, both to help them understand the pandemic from a medical point of view and to expose them to a growing medical field many of them had never heard of. As he put it, “the thing was to introduce a career path that only two of my students knew about.”

Forsythe met with students virtually on two days, allowing both A and B day students to hear her speak, either live at school or at home using Google Meets. Because of the timeliness of her presentation, Johnson invited any other available high school students to attend as well.

In the course of her talk, Forsythe shared what therapies and equipment intensive care unit staff use to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients and what she has experienced working in a COVID unit. She also took time to walk through what respiratory therapists do, where they fit into larger care teams in hospitals, the education and job training they need, and what she enjoys most and least about her job. At various points, she also took questions from students.

Students received Forsythe’s presentations well, and Johnson valued having the opportunity to show them where studying anatomy and physiology can lead. He also appreciated getting to use the new STEM Wing’s collaborative space, which allowed many students and even several faculty members to listen to Forsythe while still safely social distancing. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful addition,” Johnson said of the gathering spot. “The potential here is great.”