Coming up this week, from June 17 through the 24th, is a celebration of my profession. I’m looking forward to it. None of my former professions — tech VP, video producer, small business partner — get a national celebration. There’s no national day for brochure writers.
But this week I’m in the spotlight.
Or maybe not. We marched on Washington in April, and no one noticed.
The march was on Zoom, but that’s not why our day-long effort went unseen. It’s just that we’re certified nursing assistants, and even though there are 1.5 million of us, we’re cursed with invisibility. Also high rates of on-the-job violence. Not surprisingly, Chicago has seen understaffing in its nursing homes and strikes.
Yet, I love this job — the chance to ease family concerns, to alleviate suffering, to hear memories of a Berlin Christmas, pre-Hitler. I chose this work without compunction, after years of being in tech and the only woman in the room. This week will be a rare experience of celebration.
But do not make me a poster child. And do not make the poster board pink, or dress the cartoon CNA on the poster in a nursing outfit from the 1950s. Do not make her smile as if she doesn’t know that she works on the border between life and death. Those posters are diminishing and painful.
I wear rugged pants, sneakers, gloves, mask. For months I carried a hospice patient to his couch. I’ve battled bedbugs for months, despite Chicago’s pest control ordinance. I wash, take vitals, dress wounds. Sometimes I save a life.
But do not call me a hero. It’s a bit like calling me a saint, which is one way society lets itself off the hook from paying the kind of wages that could feed a family without public aid.
Also: Don’t give me one of those blank-page journal notebooks (sold on Amazon for $7.99) entitled, “A Truly Amazing CNA is Hard to Find and Impossible To Forget.” It’s true, America is having a hard time finding direct care workers. There’s a shortage. But good CNAs are not by nature hard to find. Here in Chicago, I’ve been surrounded by fellow CNAs for nine years.
What we are is hard to keep. Today, the annual turnover of nurses and CNAs working in Illinois nursing homes runs between 98 and 118%. In 2019, Illinois ranked last among states in nursing home staffing — and that’s mostly CNAs.
That journal’s title is right in one respect: Good CNAs are sometimes hard to forget.
I remember my mother’s homecare CNAs. Margaret coaxed my emaciated, disoriented mother into eating bits of ham sandwich and strawberry gelato. Sylvia watched over Mom at night, catching her as she charged out the door, shoeless, coatless and in pajamas. They brought order and gentleness to a life that had been short on both. They are stored in my heart.
But in many cases, families are stressed, clients are delusional, time is short, and we CNAs are indeed part of the forgettable infrastructure that makes hospitals work and hospice feel calm.
I get that. We’re function, not foreground. But I’m not asking for everlasting tribute. Just respect.
So, no. No posters. No daily themes such as “You’re a piece of the puzzle.” I’m more than an inert piece and I hope for all of our sakes that healthcare isn’t a massive puzzle.
Do not give me a coffee mug that says “Before Patients” and a companion wine glass that says “After Patients.” I might accept, though, the glass that says, “CNAs … because even nurses need heroes,” because it’s funny. But I’d rather be appreciated.
If my role in healthcare and my values were truly appreciated, I’d be likely to stick around. We’d all be paid more, and there would be more of us. There would be less suffering among vulnerable patients, among families and among CNAs.
So please, notice — and value — what we do. We need real recognition, the kind that isn’t announced on pink poster board.
Lee Reilly is an eldercare worker and writer.
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