Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, treating patients with lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which includes asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis. They also treat patients who have pneumonia and other chronic but rarer diseases such as cystic fibrosis and pulmonary fibrosis.

But their work isn't limited to hospitals or one particular patient population. They may also work in pulmonary function laboratories, sleep disorder clinics, nursing homes, for home medical equipment companies and in the military. In addition to administering treatments, respiratory therapists teach patients and their families about the disease, how to use equipment and medication.

One job, many settings

Curt Merriman has been a respiratory therapist for 29 years and has worked in a variety of settings. Currently with CORE Respiratory Services, Lakeville, Merriman divides his time among acute-care hospitals in pulmonary function laboratories, pediatric and general care as well as pediatric intensive care, adult general care and adult critical care.

"One of the things that is a draw to the profession is that there is a wide variety of things you can do and types of patients you can take care of," he says. "It doesn't have to be the same thing each and every day."

Even in the same setting, every day can be different, according to Esther Herbert, a respiratory therapist who has worked for 20 years at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul. In addition to working with children who have disabilities at Gillette, Herbert also works with pediatric trauma patients who are first taken to Regions Hospital's Emergency Department before transfer to Gillette.

"I really like working with little kids," she says. "You get kind of close to the families because you see them often and there's a lot of teaching involved."

New equipment, more education

Respiratory therapy equipment is constantly evolving, which also adds variety to their work, according to these therapists. Early in her career, some of Herbert's patients had to stay in the hospital for months because they were dependent on ventilators. Now they can take their equipment in cars and on airplanes, even on horseback. "I really find it rewarding," Herbert says. "That's why I've been here for so long. It evolves as you get older and learn new techniques."

Respiratory therapy students' clinical internships mostly occur in hospitals, according to Merriman, but students may also do rotations that expose them to pulmonary function testing, home care and pediatrics. The median salary in the Twin cities is $56,000, he says.

Healthcare is being affected by our economic situation right now," Merriman continues. "But the overall growth of respiratory therapy is still going to continue for many years to come."