Joanna Cruz is 17 and still in high school, but she knows more than many adults about how to handle an agitated patient with dementia who is batting away a spoonful of applesauce.
“We would put everything down,” she explained. “They will forget, so you just wait a few minutes and then try it again.”
Patience is just one of the skills the Gaithersburg High School senior is learning through a partnership between her school and Ingleside at King Farm, a Rockville retirement community that has a nursing home on site.
The intensive program, in its second year at Gaithersburg High, is training a dozen students to become certified nursing assistants and geriatric nursing assistants. The four-day-a-week course, which takes place outside school hours, combines 88 hours of classroom learning with 60 hours of clinical training, and it includes working with actual residents at Ingleside.
The goal is to prepare students for a career in health care, whether that means eventually going on to study medicine or beginning work as a certified nursing assistant, geriatric assistant or home health aide immediately out of high school.
The program, which was first implemented from 1999 to 2005 at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, was started by William Leahy, a neurologist who is now on Ingleside’s board of directors. He hopes to expand it to the District and Northern Virginia by next fall. Students don’t pay tuition; it is funded by a foundation that Leahy started, and the course is taught by Linda Hall, a nursing professor at Montgomery College’s Workforce Development and Continuing Education division.
Forty or 50 students have applied to be part of the program for each of the two years. Those who complete it are eligible to apply for nursing assistant state certification or take the geriatric nursing assistant (GNA) exam.
The current group, which started in September, will be tested in January, so on Thursday they were practicing their skills on each other. Knocking on a door and introducing themselves. Washing their hands for 20 seconds, then using a paper towel to shut off the water. Helping someone eat in bed. Using a strap to assist someone who has trouble standing up and walking.
Then, they headed to residents’ rooms.
“Hi, I’m Oriana and I’m going to be your GNA today,” Oriana Smith, 17, said brightly to Charles Miller, 88, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.
The burly Miller waved her in; he sat in a chair beside his bed. “I’m a particularly difficult one because they have to hoist me,” he said. “I’m not able to use my legs.”
But today Smith was focusing on his arms, using both her hands to raise each one over his head and then out to the side. Miller grinned. “It’s all right,” he said, “you can move it around, I won’t break,” and Smith grinned back.
Down the hall, Cruz stood beside Polly Loonsk, 88, a petite woman lying on a bed. She took one of Loonsk’s wrists, while Hall, the class instructor, took the other.
Cruz looked at her watch and said, “Now.” The room fell silent as they took Loonsk’s pulse.
“I got 63,” Cruz said.
“Perfect,” Hall said; “because I got 65.” The student’s count must be within four beats of the tester’s.
The students, mostly seniors, arrive with different backgrounds; some have family members who are nurses; some grew up in the same house with grandparents and know a little about how to care for older people.
No one in 18-year-old Eve Ouangrawa’s family works in health care, but she thinks she wants to become a doctor, and this might help her decide.
“Being a doctor is so many long years” of schooling, she said. “This is an opportunity for me to know if I really, really want to do it.”
Cruz thinks she wants to be a forensic psychologist, but she feels an obligation to her family to consider health care. “No one in my family has really gone to college,” she said, “but my Dad’s sisters in El Salvador are sort of doctors for their community, so he wanted me to follow in their footsteps.”
Graduates of last year’s course are all now in college or postsecondary education, including several who are studying to be registered nurses, said Kim Curtis, who oversees college, career and preparation programs at Gaithersburg High. “It opens the door for some who would never have that door opened,” she said.
Even if they don’t end up going into health care, the training teaches them to interact confidently with adults. “You kind of develop your social skills. You have to be loud and project your voice a little,” said Mikaylah Sayles, 17. “You learn how to come out of your shell.”
Training in a working facility also allows them to reach across a generational divide. Students learn about residents’ lives — the careers they had, the wars they fought in, the worlds they explored. “I met a resident, he speaks five or more languages, and he has been in a lot of countries,” Ouangrawa said with a touch of awe.
When the course began, “Miss Hall told us that we’d get really attached to the residents, and I didn’t believe it, but you do get really attached,” said Jennifer Perez Diaz, 17. “On the last day I’m going to be really sad.”
The program’s benefits reach both ways. “It gives the residents an insight into what’s going on outside with the younger generation,” said Adaeze Ikeotuonye, health-care administrator at Ingleside, adding that it has helped some reclusive residents become more engaged. “They feel like they’re helping the young people start a new career, so it does give our residents a sense of fulfillment.”
Even after just three months, the relationships can become deep, Ouangrawa said. “Everybody knows everybody’s names. You get touched by their stories,” she said. Particularly for residents who don’t get many visits from relatives, “You have to be a family to them, and that takes a lot of humanity and compassion and love.”