'Emotional abuse': Former students of suspended CNA respiratory therapy program speak out

Students who were in the program about five years ago say they were belittled, yelled at, and reduced to tears by the clinical instructors.

Students complained they were belittled, yelled at and reduced to tears

Nichola Park, who was a respiratory therapy student at the College of the North Atlantic in 2011, said the clinical instructors would yell at students. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Respiratory therapy student Nichola Park was in an intensive-care unit at a St. John's hospital in 2011, about to perform a procedure on a patient for the first time.

Park says her clinical instructor from the College of the North Atlantic said she'd be right over, so Park waited for her.

"When she got over to me, she yelled at me, in front of the patients, all of the patient's family members who were in the area, all the doctors, nurses, other medical staff, and this is one of my first experiences in the hospital," Park said, fighting back tears.

She said the instructor chastised her, saying she should have already done the procedure in the lab.

[You were] always being yelled at, and you couldn't ask a question.- Nichola Park, former CNA student

"In the lab, you're practising on mannequins — there's no consequences," Park said. 

"Your first time on a real human, you want some support, you want some guidance … and there was absolutely none of that."

That's just one example the former student gives of what she called "emotional abuse" from the clinical instructors of the college's now-suspended respiratory therapy program.

"[You were] always being yelled at, and you couldn't ask a question," Park said. 

"And if you did ask a question, you were belittled and made to feel like you shouldn't be there, or that you should just know it already. But how would you when it's your first experience?"

Concerns about 'emotional safety' of students

CNA's respiratory therapy program was put on probation in mid-2016, after a number of concerns were identified. 

It lost its accreditation in June 2017 — an unprecedented move by the Council on Accreditation for Respiratory Therapy Education. 

The College of the North Atlantic said in a statement that it is 'working diligently to ensure that the systemic and specific issues' that were identified in the report are addressed. (Rob Antle/CBC)

CBC News had obtained a copy of a 40-page report, written by a team of national reviewers prior to that decision, which was based on information gathered during the probationary period. 

According to the documents, there were concerns about the "emotional safety" of students. The report also referenced "unprofessional behaviour" by an unnamed person at clinical training sites.

"This has created a learning environment that is perceived as intimidating and not supportive of learning and the progressive development of competency," the report noted.

"Evidence indicates that this also contributes to the high program attrition rate."

CNA previously told CBC that the personnel involved with the respiratory therapy program are no longer employed by the college.

'Going on for a long time'

Former student Laura Lewis said she felt relieved when the issues at CNA's respiratory therapy program were brought to light.

"This is something that's been going on for a long time," she said.

Laura Lewis, who was a respiratory therapy student at the College of the North Atlantic in 2009, said it wasn't uncommon to see classmates cry after clinical classes. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Lewis started the program in 2009, and had an A average, until she started her clinical training in the latter term of her second year.

"[The clinical instructors] seemed to be more what I would call bully-like instead of actual mentors," she said. 

"They would make you feel like you weren't competent enough to be in this program or to complete this program. And I've seen a lot of tears in … the last [clinical] courses that I did."

Laura Lewis was a straight-A student, until she started her clinical training in the latter term of her second year at the College of the North Atlantic. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The third and final year of the program is all clinical work, involving hands-on learning in hospitals. Lewis said she missed the first two weeks of the semester due to illness.

She said she was almost finished the first term, when one of the instructors told her she wasn't cut out for respiratory therapy, and that she would never be able to make up the time she'd missed.

"I was more than willing to definitely do what I needed to do to finish my program, but I was told on a constant basis that I was too slow, I wasn't going to be able to catch up, and I should do second year again," Lewis said.

Lewis finally snapped, and told her parents she wanted to drop out. She said they lodged a complaint with CNA, but were told once again she should redo her second year.

"My parents and I, just were like, 'Why would you suggest something like that, when my marks clearly show that I have a good understanding of the theory behind it?' This is an issue with clinical, not with the student," she said.

Respiratory therapists work closely with anesthesiologists and help treat people with breathing problems and chronic illnesses such as asthma. (CBC)

Lewis said not much came from her verbal complaint, so she left the program, and moved on to another program at CNA. But she said it wasn't easy.

"I had to gain the confidence back again that I could go back to school and start a whole new field," Lewis said.

"I had to drop my plans that I've had ever since high school to be in the medical field and wrap my head around going back to school … spending the student loans again to try to get through that new program. So it was one of the most difficult transition periods of my life."

Approached CNA with issues

Park said she also made a formal, written complaint to the college.

"I was told by the head person at the time that their instructors wouldn't act like that, they wouldn't get on like that," she said.

"I really felt like I just wasn't being heard … and I kind of lost hope in that whole battle."

She had encouraged others in her class to speak up about issues, but she said they were afraid how it would affect their grades and position within the program.

Park said she couldn't face an entire year of clinical training, so she dropped out of respiratory therapy.

CNA takes accreditation removal 'extremely seriously'

Neither the College of the North Atlantic nor Advanced Education Minister Al Hawkins would agree to do an interview about these complaints from former students.

Accreditation for the respiratory therapy program at the College of the North Atlantic was withdrawn in late June. (CBC)

In an emailed statement, CNA said it takes the removal of its accreditation for the respiratory therapy program "extremely seriously."

"CNA is working diligently to ensure that the systemic and specific issues identified by [the council] are addressed while attempting to find a solution to allow students enrolled in this program to complete their studies," the statement reads. 

"Student concerns have been noted at all stages of this process and we continue to be in communication with them."

Nearly 40 students who had already completed one or two years of the three-year program were left scrambling after the program lost accreditation.

Advanced Education Minister Al Hawkins wouldn't do an interview, but said in a statement that CNA is in 'the final stages of developing a solution for impacted students, who are their top priority.' (Gary Locke/CBC)

A statement from Hawkins said the college is in "the final stages of developing a solution for impacted students, who are their top priority."

Both statements note CNA's Modernization Plan 2019, which the college said "identifies numerous organizational issues that require attention in order for CNA to provide sustainable quality programming in all areas."

Hawkins said the province will continue to support CNA as it implements the plan and "works to address all identified issues there."

With files from Rob Antle