What Being a CNA Taught Me About Bringing Humanity to Health Care and Living
Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a physician. I’ve always been interested in
hospitals as systems and how every person’s role helps support a mission of patient care, and in high school, I took a class that focused on emergency medical procedures — things like CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. A nurse, Luanne Edwards, taught that class, and while I was taking it, I learned that Mrs. Edwards was teaching another class that I could take in order to earn my certified nursing assistant (CNA) certification. I liked Mrs. Edwards, so I signed up.
Mrs. Edwards was passionate about preserving patient dignity and the importance of conveying care through our work. I still remember her telling us, when discussing patient care, “Everybody deserves a back rub at the end of the night.” She was good at reminding us that our patients were at a hard time in their lives, and even though we were dealing with delivering the science of medical care, sometimes our most important job was to give our patients the kind of personal care that can make a difficult situation bearable. Mrs. Edwards was always very clear about the importance of empathy. It wasn’t frequent, but there were a few times when I was present for a death. This is another point on which Mrs. Edwards had unwavering opinions; she believed no one should die alone. If need be, our role was to be with them and comfort them in that process. During those times — I still remember watching a husband and wife grieve after losing their child to a stillbirth — I did my best to provide the quiet attention and care that people need. Even though I was young and inexperienced, I was always comfortable giving that care, and it felt important to do this work that not everyone can do.
I had my daughter in December of my senior year of high school, and having my CNA certificate helped me start my first profession to support us. I ended up working as a CNA for about four years total. It often felt like CNAs were the eyes and ears of the care team, and this was especially true when I would do at-home health care. Our contributions were essential in making sure the care team always understood what was really going on in a patient’s life. When I went into someone’s home, I could clearly see the ways the home environment might be impacting them. Was the environment clean and tidy? Loud? How did their family speak to them? Were they being properly cared for? Nurses and nursing assistants are the boots on the ground, and their observations are a critical part of delivering high-quality care. To this day, I still think about the patients I got to know when I was working as a CNA. My patients taught me that even though you might appear frail and age and disease may have compromised you physically, if you are determined to stay young in spirit, then your attitude can have a real impact on your experience of the world. This positive perspective might not change health outcomes, but it certainly does increase the amount of joy you are able to experience and share along the way. I decided to write on this topic several months ago to reflect on my experience as a CNA and to give a well-deserved nod to National Nurses Day on May 6. Of course, now in our current health crisis of COVID-19, the importance and value of nursing care is dramatically brought to our attention. To Mrs. Edwards and all the nursing staff out there humanizing the health care system and treating and comforting the sick, thank you. I see you, and I appreciate you.
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