Every year, Respiratory Care Week acknowledges the hard and important work of respiratory therapists. Its celebration is more warranted this year than ever before.

Respiratory therapists wear many hats and juggle multiple patients at a time. Their workplace can be wherever they may need to assist someone struggling to breathe that day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, respiratory therapists have become frontline heroes, casting a well-deserved spotlight on an often-overlooked profession.

In honor of Respiratory Care Week, we dive into these six frequently-asked questions about the profession.

What is respiratory therapy?

Respiratory therapy is a specialized healthcare field that involves treating patients with breathing problems or lung issues. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, asthma, and emphysema are common respiratory complications.

What does a respiratory therapist do?

Respiratory therapists help patients who have trouble breathing or suffer from other breathing or lung issues. These highly trained professionals place breathing tubes and operate ventilators on patients who cannot breathe on their own. They take blood samples to test oxygen levels and give medication.

While not MDs, respiratory therapists work closely alongside doctors to treat and care for patients. They help to diagnose lung and breathing disorders and recommend treatment methods. They interview patients and perform chest exams or test lung capacity to determine the best therapy.

Respiratory therapists are usually among the first to respond to “Code Blue” emergency calls when a patient in a hospital has stopped breathing. They educate patients to help them maximize their quality of life.

Respiratory therapists work with patients of every age – from providing neonatal care for infants born prematurely before their lungs fully developed to assisting in delicate end-of-life situations. They are trusted to care for many critically ill patients at once.

The long list of conditions respiratory therapists treat include COPD, lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, acute respiratory distress syndrome, cystic fibrosis, bronchitis and sleep apnea. Most recently, respiratory therapists have made headlines for their critical role in the fight against COVID-19.

Where do respiratory therapists work?

Anywhere somebody needs to breathe in the hospital, a respiratory therapist may have to work that day.’ Respiratory therapists are needed in the ICU, ER, OR, and NICU.

In 2019, 82 percent of respiratory therapists worked in hospitals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the number working elsewhere is growing.

Respiratory therapists work in doctors’ offices and nursing homes. They sometimes go to their patients’ homes. Some work in sleep laboratories to diagnose disorders such as sleep apnea, others in smoking cessation programs. Respiratory therapists can be found in ambulance programs.

What is the required training to become a respiratory therapist?

Typically, an associate’s degree is required, but many respiratory therapists have a bachelor’s degree or higher. A license to practice is required in every state but Alaska. The National Board for Respiratory Care is the main certifying body.

What is the average income for a respiratory therapist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $61,330 in 2019. Employment of respiratory therapists is expected to grow 19 percent over the next decade as the county’s population continues to age.

What role have respiratory therapists played during the COVID-19 pandemic?

An immeasurable one.

Respiratory therapists are on the frontlines fighting the novel coronavirus. Through extensive training, they possess a unique skill set needed now more than ever. Because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, severe cases often mean patients need help breathing. Respiratory therapists place the breathing tubes and operate the ventilators for many of the sickest patients. These tasks occur well within the close-contact range in which the virus easily spreads.

Respiratory therapists were so badly needed that many came out of retirement to join the cause and state licensing boards eased requirements to allow students to enter the workforce more quickly.