VANCOUVER -- Justine Shaw is fresh out of school, but she never had the chance to get a graduation photo or even have a graduation ceremony.

She is one of 65 students in the respiratory therapist program at Thompson Rivers University that were forced to graduate weeks earlier than normal because their skills are needed on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It’s definitely been a very bizarre way to start my career," Shaw said of her first few weeks on the job at Vancouver General Hospital.

Shaw said her role is challenging but rewarding, as she is helping treat COVID-19 patients, some of whom are in intensive care and require the use of a mechanical ventilator.

"I’m really taking it day by day right now, every day is different….some days are harder than others," she said.

Thompson Rivers University is the only school in British Columbia that offers a respiratory therapy program.

Clinical coordinator Mike Lemphers said graduates would typically work in hospitals with wide range of patients who have breathing problems, whether it’s someone with asthma who needs help managing their condition, or someone who has been in a car accident and has suffered chest trauma and can no longer breathe on their own.

Now however, his students find themselves working with patients who are recovering from COVID-19.

"I’m very proud of all of our graduates," Lemphers said. "They’ve put in a lot of training. They put in a lot of time."

Shaw feels a similar sense of pride.

"It’s really humbling to know that I am now doing it during a time when we’re so desperately needed."