How can you tell longtime therapists love their work? When you ask them to describe their best day on the job, many can do so without missing a heartbeat. Usually they can instantly recall a touching story that left them humbled by the miracle of healing.
Respiratory therapist Robert Bence remembers a woman who was viciously attacked by her hatchet-wielding son-in-law. She was so brutalized and lost so much blood, few on the surgical team (including Bence) gave the woman much chance of living. Yet she not only survived surgery, she responded miraculously to her treatments in the weeks following. Finally, Bence one day joyfully realized this victim was not only going to survive, she was going to be able to function in the world again "with a quality of life no one once thought possible."
Bence has been a therapist 25 years, and is currently president of the California Society for Respiratory Care. He notes that this is a particularly good time to enter the field.
"The job market is extremely active with a lot of vacancies to be filled," he reports. "Demand is far in excess of what's available (in the way of personnel)."
An aging population in need of more care and a lack of enrollments in respiratory specialist programs has created the current shortage.
The good news is you only need a two-year college degree to enter the field, which typically pays $45K annually to start, according to Bence. He stresses, however, that your earning potential will be far greater if you move "up the responsibility tree" by advancing into various management positions.
Bence concedes that management is not for everyone. Some "are a lot happier doing patient care." But management, Bence believes, offers respiratory therapists diversity in their day-to-day activities.
While the shortage of respiratory therapists is a breath of fresh air for anyone seeking employment, that shortage turns into a liability when you land a job. Bence explains that since hospitals are so shorthanded, the staffs they do have must carry a greater workload. That will increase the stress of an already stressful day that might require you to work in ER, intensive care, maternity, etc. - wherever help is needed in maintaining a patient's respiration.
Often, you will have to perform triage - decide who needs immediate attention and who can wait, something that is particularly stressful. That's why Bence feels the best therapists are articulate, detail-oriented people who can think as well as move quickly. "Often you have to stop what you are doing (to respond to an emergency) and be able to remember where you left off an hour and a half later," Bence adds.
The respiratory therapist, Bence emphasizes, does not operate independently, but is part of a team of doctors and nurses who work to create a synergy that benefits the patient.
It's a rewarding job with plenty of days that will leave you feeling like you've made a real difference in patients' lives. But dealing with one of life's vital functions also has its bad days. Bence's worst came with a patient who suddenly couldn't breathe.
"Doctor Bob, help me," he pleaded. Before Bence could react, the patient went into cardiac arrest and died. "There was nothing I could do," Bence reflects, "you get to know your patients, some to a great extent. It's tough . . . you have to have a certain amount of detachment or you can't function."
Toe-to-Toe with the Top Brass
As a physical therapist, Patti Evans has had many memorable moments. But for her, the most remarkable happened over 40 years ago during her tour of duty with the Navy at an Illinois hospital.
A paralyzed soldier injured in Vietnam showed up on the morning he was to be discharged. Since he was a career solider, this was a sad day, Evans recalls. Until she told him to move his big toe. "I did a double take," Evans continued, "You have a theory about how the treatment works, but you've never been able to prove it."
"To see the joy on his face . . . " Evans reminisced. Immediately, she took the soldier into a meeting room where the board of officers was about to vote on his discharge.
"I plunked his foot up on the table and said 'take a look at this.'" Evans recounts. The soldier kept his commission.
Right now, the prognosis for work in the physical therapy field is better than average, notes Evans, who is executive director of the California chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association. She is hearing reports that it is taking up to six months to fill positions.
It's even easier these days to get into physical therapy programs, which have traditionally been very selective. "Right now, if you have the qualifications, you have a 50-50 chance of getting into the school of your choice," Evans reports. A master's degree from an accredited school is required to qualify for the licensing exam.
Right out of school, you will earn $45K to $50K, more if you go inland where there is less competition and hospitals and clinics tend to pay better.
"People who are interested in the science of how the body works should go into the field," Evans believes. They should also be proponents of melding body and spirit to forge a patient's will to recover.
Evans cautions people against pursuing the physical therapist assistant program, which only requires an AA degree. She says that demand has plummeted for those professionals, who typically earn $35,000 a year.
If you are a caring person who wants to pursue the physical therapy path, Evans recommends developing a certain amount of detachment. "You have to care, but not be so attached that it destroys you."
Occupational Therapy Has Recovered
Chuck Strauch, executive director of the Occupational Therapy Association of California, is not himself a therapist. He is, instead, an advocate who believes this is a great time to become an occupational therapist (four-year degree) or an assistant (two-year degree).
He has the numbers to back up his recommendation. Full-fledged occupational therapists are earning $63,000 to $70,000 a year to start, while two-year grads are making $50,000.
"The job market is hot right now," Strauch stresses. Typical employers include school districts, child services agencies, clinics, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, even the Elks, which have occupational therapy operations.
The term occupational, Strauch explains, is somewhat a misnomer. Therapists in this field actually help people become as functional as possible - whether that means at work or living at home.
Someone going into this field needs to be nurturing and compassionate, qualities that have attracted many women to the field. While burnout is a factor, Strauch underscores that "this is a very fulfilling kind of occupation."
For more information on therapist careers, contact:
- HealthCareerWeb.com - A part of CareerWeb.com, site provides job searching and resume posting for all healthcare fields. Education Center and Career Services include links to resume services and articles on career and job-hunting advice.
- BLS.gov - Click on Occupational Outlook Handbook and enter 'therapists' in the OOH Search Index in the upper right corner to learn more about occupations in the field of therapy.
- HealthcareJobstore.com - Healthcare job openings include nurse practitioners, medical directors, emergency physicians, pharmacists, research associates, paramedics, etc.
- HealthProfessions.com - A good place to start researching, this site provides a reference guide to medical professions and schools across the nation that offer courses necessary to qualify. You can look up any medical career and find out the roles and responsibilities, average salaries, educational requirements, and associated affiliations with your career option.
- Medzilla.com - Provides job listings, articles, forums and resume posting for all healthcare professionals.