These therapists' work includes evaluating, treating and educating patients who have breathing disorders such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis and emphysema. They may use a variety of devices to treat patients, such as ventilators and blood-gas analyzers, and may also perform chest physiotherapy to remove mucus from patients' lungs.

Patients, settings vary widely

Patients range from newborn to elderly, and settings vary widely, from hospitals, clinics, homes, sleep-disorder laboratories, ambulances and air transport vehicles. Employers also include home healthcare equipment companies and the military.

"Right in the Twin Cities now, we're experiencing a shortage," says Terrie Newton, clinical education coordinator in the respiratory care department at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. "All the facilities I know are extremely busy throughout the city area and are really having a tough time meeting the demands of what the schools are putting out."

Science majors go for respiratory therapy

Many students who have Bachelor of Science degrees in fields like biology will return to school for respiratory therapy, according to Newton. Others go directly from high school.

Saint Paul College and Lake Superior College in Duluth offer two-year degrees in respiratory therapy, while the College of St. Catherine and the Mayo School of Health Sciences, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota, confer four-year degrees. In Minnesota, respiratory therapists must also be certified by the State Board of Medical Practice. Salaries range from $27 to $32 an hour.

Clinical experience leads to career choices

Students at Saint Paul College rotate through a variety of clinical experiences, and usually know what they want to do by the time they graduate. Many begin work as respiratory care aides in their second year of college, and are offered jobs in those settings after certification, according to Kathy Ross, clinical director for respiratory therapy at Saint Paul College.

"There's a great variety of positions out there," adds Joseph Buhain, director of Saint Paul College's respiratory therapy program. "If someone doesn't want to go into a hospital they can do other things," such as education and case management.

Students from St. Kate's and St. Paul College routinely receive clinical experience at North Memorial. "We end up hiring some of them," says Newton. "It's a great opportunity for them to see us and for us to see them as well. It works out really well."