National Nurses Week: Home Health Aides Who Became Remarkable Nurses

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Today's newly certified registered nurses emerge ready to take on a career in one of the most rewarding industries, inspired by their own personal stories of what drew them to this vocation. Despite varying levels of education, distinctive cultures and unique life experiences, they all have one thing in common: a passion to help others.

During National Nurses Week, May 6 - 12, across America we have an opportunity to celebrate the heart and compassion behind the nursing profession. This year's theme is "Nurses Leading the Way," and as president of Partners in Care, I'm proud to say that all of our nurses do just that.

Most gratifying of all, I've seen many of our home health aides over the last 30-plus years be inspired to get into the nursing field, parlaying their genuine compassion for caring for the sick and elderly. This characteristic is shared between all medical professionals to some extent, but it is truly remarkable to see how the home health aide perspective benefits someone transitioning into nursing.

Lois Alatise and Janice Garnes-Gordon are two licensed practical nurses who started their health careers at Partners in Care as home health aides (HHAs). Both are pursuing their registered nurse licenses and have some key advice for anyone considering the nursing field.

Lois Alatise moved to the United States in 2007 from Nigeria and after years in banking, she knew her heart belonged in caregiving. "Working with my first patient [as a home health aide] was an unforgettable experience," recalls Alatise, "and over time I found myself wanting to expand my expertise and provide an even higher level of patient care as a registered nurse. I realized that I already had the heart and desire to become a registered nurse; I just needed the education."

Janice Garnes-Gordon, originally from Barbados, was culturally set up to be a caregiver: at the age of 11, she was caring for her three older brothers and running the household. Early in her career as a home health aide she worked with hospice patients. She began to prefer cancer or colostomy cases, as she felt she was making a larger impact in these patients' lives. Her hospice nurse colleagues noticed she had a real touch and encouraged her to pursue her nursing degree.

You Must Have the Heart

"Working as a home health aide, you really see a person's day-to-day struggle and develop sincere compassion for what they're going through," says Alatise. "If you don't have the heart, you will grow weary. At the end of the day, a home health aide's most important role is to be a helpful companion."

For Alatise and many others, the experience of establishing this unique personal bond is a great advantage as they transition from aide to nurse. During their frequent visits, HHAs learn to pick up on cues as to how the home environment may be influencing patient care, how relationships with family members impact a patient's mood, and what daily routines are vital to promoting patient independence. In essence, they are able go beyond the medical symptoms and truly get to know the core of each patient. Creating a comprehensive assessment of a patient's environment is a skill that allows nurses to create the best care plan possible, and the experience that comes from already doing this on an almost daily basis as a home health aide is invaluable.

Patience and Independence

Skills that cannot be taught in the classroom are the art of patience and active listening. In that regard, home health aides already have first-hand practice that gives them a leg-up as they embark upon careers as nurses. "Our role as a home health aide is to promote independence," explains Alatise. "With this comes responsibility not just for providing care, but for empowering the patient to take charge of their own health. We do this by listening -- really listening -- to their wants and needs."

"If the patient feels they are still in control, it will guarantee both respect and confidence in their wellbeing," adds Garnes-Gordon. "The patient needs to feel 'normal' and that they still are the same person as they were before they fell ill."

Until a health care professional is actually out in the field, listening to patient demands and finding creative compromises while still providing the highest standards of care, the concept of patience remains abstract. The ability to show patience in both theory and practice is deeply intertwined with the incredible bond that forms between nurse and patient.

Understand the Importance of Home Health Aides to Nurses

Patients are in close contact with home health aides more frequently than with their nurses, so it is inevitable that a strong and important bond between the two develops. Garnes-Gordon says, "I've had patients question nurses' orders, insisting they discuss with me before following through. Nurses are able to mitigate this by showing the patient the true collaboration that occurs between nurses and home health aides in creating their plan of care."

Because of their familiarity, HHAs are often considered the "eyes" and "ears" of the patient and see health changes first. They are in a position to offer suggestions and discuss solutions with a nurse after identifying even subtle changes in a patient's mood or behavior. After becoming a nurse herself, Garnes-Gordon says she intends to continue to "place great value in the nurse-home health aide collaboration model" and rely on her home health aides to alert her to any causes for concern.

If, like Janice Garnes-Gordon and Lois Alatise, becoming a registered nurse is your real dream, they both advise that it's never too late or too difficult to pursue your passion. The journey may be intensive and time-consuming, but the fulfillment derived from a career driven by heart is incomparable.