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On the job: Moving forward after the Humbolt Broncos

female Caucasian Respiratory therapist with long brown hair, posing in scrubs in work setting,
Respiratory Therapist grad Kelsey Thibault draws on her front-line experience to promote grief and trauma support for RTs across Canada.

Since graduating from SAIT’s Respiratory Therapy program in 2016, Kelsey Thibault has worked in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units diagnosing and managing cardiopulmonary disorders. After three years in the field, she says she is used to responding to emergencies and working under pressure. But April 6, 2018, was different.

Thibault was working in a Saskatoon hospital when a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team collided with a semi-trailer truck. Sixteen people were killed and thirteen were injured. As part of the medical team that responded to the scene and provided long-term care to survivors, Thibault was provided grief counselling and group support to help navigate her own trauma and continue providing quality care.

In May 2019, Thibault presented the importance of support for front-line workers in her plenary at the National Conference of the Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists (CSRT). Most recently, she visited the SAIT campus in August to share the same presentation with Respiratory Therapy (RT) students: Moving Forward After the Humboldt Broncos ― The Importance of Debriefing, Grieving, and Supporting Front Line RTs After Trauma.

"Dealing with situations like this is easier if you can rely 100% on your skills. I knew I was providing the best care to our patients that I possibly could, and it didn't matter what else was going on around me." 

LINK writer Eric Rosenbaum chatted with Thibault about her experience, the aftermath and the effects of trauma on front-line workers.

Take us back to April 6, 2018.

KT: I was on my night off when I got the call. The Royal University Hospital had issued a code orange. I knew that meant mass casualties, but I didn’t know the details ― only that that there was a bus accident involving a sports team. Our hospital is the trauma centre for Northern Saskatchewan, but I've never seen that many critically ill patients come in at once. Because of the mass amount of patients, we had to be very quick at receiving them, assessing them and implementing any immediate therapies required to stabilize them. Most of the patients required intubation. That’s where you insert a breathing tube to manage the patient’s airway. Respiratory Therapists manage that procedure. Then we transferred them to where they needed to go ― either to medical imaging or to an operating room and then to the Intensive Care Unit.

You were working under extreme conditions that night. How did you handle it?

KT: Dealing with situations like this is easier if you can rely one hundred percent on your skills. I knew I was providing the best care to our patients that I possibly could, and it didn’t matter what else was going on around me. It definitely all starts from how well I learned those skills as a student at SAIT.  The skills I learned there are the ones I use every day and being confident in those skills is a huge benefit to me.

How did your RT training come into play?   

KT: At SAIT we focused on acute care ― patient interaction in situations where they’re critical and require ventilators to keep them breathing. We spent a lot of time working with high-tech simulators, or mannequins. They’re like crash test dummies but they respond like a real person in distress [and are] amazing learning tools. For example, when you’re doing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on them, they tell you if you’re pushing too hard or if you’re not pushing fast enough. Of course, when you are involved with a real person, there’s added stress, so it’s great to be able to lean back on the fact that you know how to do something appropriately in an efficient amount of time. Honestly, I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t confident in my skills. That’s really the bread and butter of respiratory therapy.

While your training got you through that first night, what impact did this experience have on you personally?  

KT: I had shed only a few tears during that night, but when I left the hospital, I began to notice the effects this magnitude of trauma had taken on my mind and body. My hands started shaking on the drive home. And then the impact of the night completely set in and I broke down completely. When the task-oriented part of my brain stopped focusing on the job at hand, the emotions flooded in.

What was it like working during the days that followed?

KT: As you can imagine, the hospital was full of the family and friends of our patients. It was very crowded and very emotional. There were many other visitors including Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers and the Prime Minister.  I have one distinct memory of working with one patient and turning around to see Don Cherry standing next to the bed, and he was crying.

Saskatchewan is a big province but a small population where everybody knows everybody. Everybody could relate to this tragedy. Either they had a direct, or indirect relationship with the families. And even if they didn’t, they could all relate to children who play sports and travel by bus to games. It hit everybody hard, especially those of us on the front line as health care workers.

How have you been able to move forward?

KT: There was one big debrief for anyone involved in the code orange. It was an opportunity for all of us to hear from a grief worker about the phases of grief, to share our feelings and talk about how proud we were of that night. For weeks afterwards, there were grief counsellors having small group meetings for anyone who felt the need to talk. I wanted to make sure I was okay and know that I wouldn't carry this throughout my entire career, so I spoke to a counsellor about it.

I have people on my team who've worked as an RT for 10 years, and they have a lot of stuff built up, and you can tell. We're human, so we are going to be impacted by this kind of stuff, just as much as the general public. Some hospitals are really good at this kind of support, but it isn't the same across Canada. That's why I submitted my idea to talk about grief and trauma support for front-line workers to the CSRT Conference ― I wanted something good to come from my experience. 

This interview has been edited for length.

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