Gregory Pekny admitted that he didn't really know what respiratory therapists did until he saw them in action at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center.

Pekny, who has been employed as a certified nursing assistant since 2009, was fascinated by how the respiratory therapists used ventilators and breathing treatments to aid their patients.

"When you see that patient who can't breathe and is having problems, it's like they're drowning," he said. "I liked how the (respiratory therapists) could go in and fix those people and help them out."

Pekny, a native of Norfolk, Neb., researched respiratory therapy and learned that it is a versatile field that would allow him to work with patients ranging in age from infant to adult.

Pekny applied at St. Luke's College, located just across the street from the hospital in Physician Center One, and was accepted into the respiratory care program, where he is a first-year student.

St. Luke's welcomed a record 213 students, 81 of which are new students, to campus for the start of the fall 2012 semester. The previous record of 209 students was set last year.

Nearly 80 percent of the college's students hail from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.

According to Dr. Richard Ayi, chief academic officer, nursing is the most popular program with an enrollment of 135 students, followed by radiology with 36 and respiratory care with 26.

"We are excited to have this large enrollment and we're hoping the trend will continue because as we have an aging population the need will just grow," he said.

As the baby boomers age, the healthcare industry is expected to generate more than 3 million jobs by the year 2020. According to the college, the average job placement rate for St. Luke's graduates is 98 percent.

Graduates of St. Luke's College, Ayi said, go on to find work not only at St. Luke's and Mercy Medical Center - Sioux City, but at hospitals and clinics all over the region.

A growing force


St. Luke's College grew out of its existing space and moved from 2616 Pierce St. to Physician Center One across the street from the hospital.

The 2012-13 academic year began Aug. 16 in the newly renovated 18,000-square-foot space on the second and third floors of the building. The new location features a student lounge, large classrooms with smart boards and high-tech practice labs where students practice standard medical procedures on medical mannequins and sometimes themselves.

"In the past we had small closets or small rooms where students received hands-on experience," Ayi said. "Currently we have a huge skills lab."

Kim Gray, a nursing student in her fourth and final semester, said she put what she learned in the classroom at St. Luke's College to use when her 17-year-old daughter underwent a thyroidectomy and radioactive treatment last October after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

"I actually understood what was going on with some of that and could help tell everybody else in my family how things were going," she said.

The 44-year-old mother of three, who lives in Onawa, Iowa, decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse when her youngest daughter reached high school.

"I've always helped take care of my aging family and sick grandparents," she said. "I've always had kind of a knack for it."

Gray said she chose St. Luke's because she had heard nothing but positive things about the college. Her 19-year-old daughter will follow in her footsteps when she starts nursing classes at the college next spring.

Different reasons


Sherry McCarthy, the college's enrollment coordinator, said some students come right from high school, while others are non-traditional students pursuing their second career.

Jody Martinson's disabled son inspired him to pursue a career in imaging sciences, a big change for the 39-year-old construction worker from Allen, Neb.

"He gets pneumonia a lot, so I've spent weeks and weeks in the hospitals," he said.

During those hospitalizations, many of which were at St. Luke's, Martinson talked with nurses, respiratory therapists and radiologists about their jobs. He found that radiologists seemed to really love what they do.

"It just piqued my interest, and I just decided there's a lot of good people in the medical field and I wanted to be part of it," he said.

Ayi believes that St. Luke's academic rigor and its strong record of academic performance are drawing more students to the college.

He said around 40 experienced faculty members teach at the college, which has a student to instructor ratio of 15 to 1.

"We have structures to help at-risk students, so every step of the way we have interventions to make sure that our students succeed," he said.

The majority of the college's students pass their board exams, according to Ayi. He said that different programs at different times have seen 100 percent passage rates over the past three or four years.

"We're just fortunate to have these students and we'll do our best to give them the skills they require to succeed in the health care profession," he said.