WASHINGTON, D.C.—This year, the public has praised doctors and nurses for risking their lives in the fight against the coronavirus. However, there may be other essential workers you may not have heard of, such as respiratory therapists. 

What You Need To Know

  • Respiratory therapists usually treat patients with breathing-related health conditions like asthma and pneumonia

  • Amid the pandemic, respiratory therapists are placing COVID-19 patients on ventilators and monitoring the process

  • In California, the field is projected to grow by about 1,000 positions from 2019 to 2021

  • The American Association for Respiratory Care said they expect job growth even after the pandemic ends

Respiratory therapists work alongside doctors and nurses on the front lines in order to help patients whose breathing has been impacted by coronavirus. Robert Wolfe is a respiratory therapist at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. He said he first learned about respiratory therapy shortly after graduating high school when his grandfather was in the hospital. 

“I went to visit him and a respiratory therapist came in, and I just started talking with them and I thought, 'Oh this is really cool,'” Wolfe said. 

Wolfe went into the field and has been a respiratory therapist for 20 years. He said his job has stayed relatively the same but said he noticed a few more steps involved amid the pandemic for his daily routine. For example, he has to wear more personal protective equipment.

“You have to think about protecting yourself and everybody else in the room,” Wolfe said. 

Since the pandemic began, Tom Kallstrom, the CEO and Executive Director of the American Association for Respiratory Care said more people have learned about the field of respiratory therapy and what it entails. 

“We're getting a lot of attention as a profession now,” he said. 

Kallstrom said respiratory therapists typically treat patients with breathing-related health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and pneumonia. This year, however, he said they have played a crucial role in helping patients fight against coronavirus. 

“The respiratory therapist oftentimes is the person that sticks the tube, it's called intubation, into the lungs. We then make sure the airway is secure," he said. "We then put them on a mechanical ventilator."

According to Kallstrom, respiratory therapists continue to monitor their patients' condition on the ventilator. Once a patient is ready to be removed from their ventilator, they are extubated, meaning the tube is removed from the patient's lungs.

Wolfe believes that weaning patients off of their ventilators and watching them start breathing on their own again is the best part of his job. 

“To pull that tube out and have them say ‘Hi’ to their family; that’s probably the most rewarding,” Wolfe said. 

There are about 1,460 respiratory therapy jobs available in California each year and according to the Projections Managing Partnership, the field is projected to grow in the state by about 1,000 positions from 2019 to 2021. The annual mean salary for respiratory therapists in California is $83,920, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Most respiratory therapy jobs require at least a two-year associate's degree, but Kallstrom said those with a bachelor's degree are more likely to be hired for leadership and management roles. 

Kallstrom said he also expects the job growth for respiratory therapists to continue well after the pandemic is over. 

“As we look to the future, we need more therapists,” Kallstrom said.