Becoming a CNA

Dec 5th 2011

Sometimes in life, we really get so close to the red hot center that it takes your breath away and you are forever changed. I think becoming a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) is one of those epic moments. I don’t think our government will ever mandate that we all become CNAs, like paying taxes in the U.S. or military service in Israel, but maybe they should if we really want to become a compassionate nation again. Heck, it (true humble service to another) could be the perfect presidential platform to get everyone on the same page for once and steal this upcoming election.

Honestly, this training had a greater impact than any other professional endeavor I have experienced in my entire life. Much of what we chase professionally would get us further away from these opportunities because we assume arrogantly that it is not our knowledge path, so why even consider a day or week on the other side. This was not a move to copy “Undercover Boss” but a quest to understand “The Work” by overcoming my own inner fears about being that close to all of it, including the most vulnerable of times and the inability to do the simplest things—brushing teeth, going to the bathroom . . .

Why such dramatic comments? What really happens in less than 150 hours of studying, labs and clinicals that causes this type of transformation?

First, your sense of time merges with everyone else’s because you see your life flash by like the residents you serve.

Second, your social identities vaporize because when God said, “We will go out as we came in,” it is truly validated during clinicals.

Third, your secular world armor is removed because every teammate must be equal for it to really work.

And lastly, you are the edge of every philosophical construct ever discussed within your own circle…

Can we really love our neighbors as ourselves?  How much do you believe in your own dialogue about faith and salvation at the bedside? Why do we have human suffering anyway? What is our moral obligation related to servicing fellow man? How alone are we really, and isn’t our life one private journey to find God?

Who is this group called a CNA? What drives them and what is the psychological profile that calls them to serve? Is it a spiritual vocation like a religious call that they hear in their inner voice? Or does serving give them the purposeful life that we all crave?

In my 16 hours on the 300 hall, I kept asking myself, “How do millions of CNAs in our country perform such exhaustive physical and high-risk duties every day knowing there is limited advancement opportunity?” Is the emotional toll an even greater burden than the physical because you are seeing intimate family encounters from other walks of life that no one else will ever see? How can such a noble calling exhaust both dimensions of someone’s existence? And yet many struggle to “make ends meet” to provide for their families, rooted in the ‘Butchers Scraps’ analogy from the Great Depression.

My fascinating journey with long term care started with being a volunteer all the way back in high school, where the residents’ state of life seemed like a galaxy of time away; but I just loved the history lessons around storytelling. The aging process seemed to be about slowing down after a life of hard work and sacred family building that ends with long naps wrapped in your family heirloom quilt, playing bingo or board games with peers.

For me, it had become more about how to sustain a mission-based organization in the past decade and a half as I worked in long term care management, and having my father become a reluctant customer who passed away at one of our centers over two years ago where I watched diligent CNAs serve my father that my family was forever grateful to.  

But now, 25 years after I first volunteered, I don’t see nursing centers as physical spaces anymore or become personally fixated on how to improve our leadership teams as I make site visits, but instead focus on more merciful encounters.

It just feels great to have the personal confidence that comes from knowing how to take care of our residents who are suffering, with other experienced stakeholders side-by-side. Maybe answering call lights, partnering on a complicated resident transfer, serving a few residents a meal, getting a precious elder ready for a meal . . . is a way to remember how blessed we are as a company to have thousands of dedicated CNAs who make it all happen 24 hours a day.

I think being a CNA is the ultimate servant leadership role. You feel like you are actually walking the beatitudes because people are much sicker, families seem more fractured and half of your customers go back home while the other half prepare for a different journey that no one really wants if they were honest.

I think for our company mission to ‘radically change long term care forever’ to become a reality, we need everyone to take the road less traveled and become a certified nursing assistant so we are all on the same sheet of music.

After two days and 16 hours on the job, I wanted to go back a third day, to be with the precious, the worn, the grateful, the vulnerable and listen and love all over again. One look of joy or a smile of gratitude was all it took to fall in love with each resident I had the privilege to serve. And I wanted to serve them—even the hard doing because what they gave in their frail strength of love and appreciation was even more than I was able to give. Simply said, they, our people, our revolution, the aged and the the vulnerable are worth it. They just are.

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