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High-demand career: Becoming a respiratory therapist

Students in a clinical skills lab at Upstate practice inserting a breathing tube into a mannequin. Students in a clinical skills lab at Upstate practice inserting a breathing tube into a mannequin.


Their place on the front lines caring for those with COVID-19 has brought a greater public awareness of respiratory therapists. With specialized training in caring for those whoe have issues with their hearts and lungs, respiratory therapists are counted on to help COVID-19 patients with the disease’s severe acute respiratory symptoms. That can include administering oxygen and medicine or setting up and monitoring ventilators (see story below), should patients need assistance with breathing.

U.S. News & World Report included respiratory therapy among the top 20 in-demand health care career options in 2019. The magazine said the median national salary for them was $60,280 in 2018.

Upstate Medical University’s Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy is offered through the College of Health Professions. Students with aptitude in math and science can complete two years of intense, specialized training that includes clinical work in the medical field.

“When they graduate, respiratory therapists are prepared to work with patients, from newborns to the elderly,” said Michele Pedicone, assistant professor of respiratory therapy.

For more information on the respiratory therapy program at Upstate Medical University, visit upstate.edu/respiratory or email [email protected]

How a ventilator works

A mechanical ventilator is a life support machine that helps people breathe when they are not able to breathe on their own. It may also be called a breathing machine.

The ventilator connects to the patient through a tube placed into the windpipe. It blows a high concentration of oxygen into the lungs and helps the body get rid of carbon dioxide through the lungs. Ventilators help ease the work of breathing, so that a person does not feel so out of breath. They can provide what is called positive end expiratory pressure, to hold the lungs open, so air sacs do not collapse. And, the tube in the windpipe makes it easier to remove mucus if the patient has a cough.

Most patients who need support from a ventilator because of a severe illness are cared for in a hospital’s intensive care unit.

The ventilator itself does not cause pain, but some people dislike the feeling of having a tube in their mouth or nose. They cannot talk because the tube passes between the vocal cords in the windpipe. They also cannot eat by mouth with the tube in place.

People on ventilators may receive sedatives to help them feel more comfortable.

Source: American Thoracic Society

Upstate Health magazine cover for spring 2020, special coronavirus editionThis article is from the spring 2020 Upstate Health magazine, a special edition dealing with the coronavirus.