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In the business of breathing
Mahen Manickum sheds light on respiratory therapy at Stanton Territorial Hospital

Candace Thomson
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 7, 2014

What is a respiratory therapist? Most people don't know but, in a pinch, they're the ones who keep a person breathing.

NNSL photo/graphic

Mahen Manickum has been a respiratory therapist (RT) at Stanton Territorial Hospital for 10 years. He moved to Yellowknife with his family at the age of 16 when his father relocated them from South Africa to work as a teacher. He demonstrates, above, how a ventilator is used to monitor patient breathing inside the respiratory therapy wing in the hospital. - Candace Thomson/NNSL photo

"We essentially make sure the patient's airways are always intact," said Mahen Manickum, a respiratory therapist (RT) at Stanton Territorial Hospital for the past nine years.

As an asthmatic, Manickum had first-hand experience with breathing problems and the help RTs can give before knowing it was the career waiting for him.

"I ended up at Stanton (emergency) a couple of times throughout the 1990s and the RTs at the time in the building would be explaining what they were doing, helping me and so forth," he said.

In order to keep a patient breathing, RTs must know how to intubate a patient by inserting a plastic tube in the trachea, and pumping air into their lungs with a bag. They also work with ventilators that do the pumping for them, do diagnostic testing on patients with respiratory problems, and much more.

"I had a degree in chemistry and biology, so I understood what they were talking about and caught on."

The RTs in question were Craig Robinson and Don Stockton, who asked him to come in for a day and job-shadow them.

"I went and spent a full day there, loved what I saw and what they showed me. It got my interest piqued, so they showed me where to apply for universities," Manickum said.

From there, Manickum entered an intensive four-year program at Caribou College, now known as Three Rivers University, in Kamloops, B.C. He worked in hospitals in B.C. during his studies, but knew that he wanted to return to Yellowknife for work.

"Ultimately coming back to this community was a goal," he said. "I wanted to give back what was given to me. This was home."

Manickum and his family moved to Yellowknife 27 years ago, after his father Krish Manickum moved the family from their home in Durban, South Africa to work as a teacher.

Manickum graduated from university and, in 2004, accepted a job as a full-time RT at Stanton. The first day, he said, was fast-paced and challenging.

"It was a rush, it was overwhelming, it was scary, the whole gamut of emotions were there," Manickum said.

"It was a nice feeling coming home but at the same time it's a new environment ... (you're) trying to make sure that your knowledge is coming through, your clinical practice and patient care is still coming through and you're able to do your job to the best of your abilities."

He was on call for a month after that, something that he said prepared him for the career ahead and gave him the confidence in himself he needed to succeed.

Even 10 years later, Manickum said, the job is challenging and he learns new things every day.

RTs work from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, but take turns being on call so there is always an RT available to the hospital, Manickum said.

"The nursing staff are our eyes and ears and trouble shoot for us when we're not there, so we need to have a very good communication with them," he said.

They have the same daily routine of coming in early to update themselves on the progress of their patients, and reporting to the doctor residing over the ICU during rounds.

From there, the RTs, the physician and the nurses collaborate on a plan for the day for each patient.

The main goal is to either keep patients from going on the ventilator or get them off of it.

Like the other health professionals featured in this series, the RTs job is not always easy. Some of the hardest cases in Manickum's career included the Old Town plane crash in September 2011, and the loss of firefighters Lt. Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson in a shed fire in 2005.

"When we had the plane crashes down in Old Town I was by myself as an RT, so trying to manage the multiple patients coming in was hard," he said.

"The two firefighters that we lost ... that was a tough one. We work with these guys day in and day out, so seeing one of them down and working on them ... I think we did everything to our ability.

"The type of work we're doing is critical care. Basically, it can have very disheartening outcomes at the end of the day, some of them, so if you don't have an outlet or a way of coping it can get to you.

"Your life span in this job role would be short if you don't have a coping mechanism, having good co-workers and relationships is essential to offset the negative."

At all times, Manickum keeps a mantra in the back of his mind that he heard first from his early mentors.

"If you can stick to the basics, do the basics really well and provide the patient with a good airway, and you can maintain that, you're on the right path," he said.

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