We can survive for several days without water and for several weeks without food. But without oxygen, we'll die within only a few minutes. Respiratory therapists, or respiratory care practitioners as they are also called, keep the oxygen flowing. Under the direction of a physician, they evaluate and care for patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders.

Varied Patients, Many Settings

"We take care of lung health," says Laurie Tomaszewski, president of the Minnesota Society for Respiratory Care. Respiratory therapists care for individuals of all ages - from infants to elders.

Although most therapists work in hospitals, a growing number are employed in home care; sleep and other specialty clinics; air and surface patient transport; pulmonary rehabilitation; research and medical equipment sales. Many are also involved in programs such as smoking cessation and asthma education.

Career Variety

Like many respiratory therapists, Tomaszewski has a varied career. She cared for ventilator-dependent children and worked in homecare before going into medical service sales. She's currently an account manager at Handi Medical Supply in St. Paul, where she's involved in sales and contract negotiation with insurance and homecare agencies.

Patient care is still part of her job, too. She often sets up and demonstrates equipment in clients' homes. And she also sees many clients on an on-going basis.

More Rigorous Education

"Years ago, respiratory therapists evaluated lung function by having patients blow in a bag. Today they're helping with complex procedures like intubation and bronchoscopies, and they're managing patients on ventilators," Tomaszewski says.

As respiratory care evolves, educational requirements are becoming more rigorous. The minimum preparation is still an associate degree, but the bachelor's degree is becoming more common. Both degrees prepare students to sit for national credentialing exams. But therapists with a four-year degree usually earn more and have a better chance of being promoted.

Respect And Recognition

According to Tomaszewski, respiratory therapists are in demand. In the Metro area, the starting salary is about $43,000. After three years' experience, therapists can earn up to $50,000.

"We're getting more recognition and respect from the entire healthcare team," she says. "If you like technology and patient care, this is a great job. You can really make a difference in someone's life."

For more information, visit the American Association for Respiratory Care and the Minnesota Society for Respiratory Care.

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul and has written about healthcare since 1995.