Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
What is a CNA?
The acronym CNA stands for certified nursing assistant. Essentially, it is a person who helps with a person’s daily activities of living, or ADLs (i.e. getting dressed/bathed, fixing meals, and even some lite housekeeping). You are CPR certified and knowledgeable in taking vital signs, along with some background information on specific diseases of the patients under your care. I like to think of the CNA as the front-line of medicine: you are the first to know when something seems wrong.
How do I become a CNA?
You must complete a CNA training program, which includes a course and clinical section. Some nursing homes actually offer training on the job, so that could be a plus! However, in order to officially practice, most employers require that you are state-certified, which requires you to pass a standardized test through the Virginia State Board of Nursing.
For me, I completed my training program through the American Red Cross over the summer and became state-certified shortly thereafter. Overall, the process is really simple. Just make sure to not overthink anything and get nervous about your practicums, and you will be fine!
What positions can I hold as a CNA?
CNA positions, for the most part, are available in a variety of medical environments, including nursing homes, hospitals, and with home health agencies. For me, I had a unique experience where I was able to work not only as a home health aide but also as a CNA at a hospice house last summer. Both were very different experiences that gave me a better understanding of positions in the medical field.
What made me decide to engage in this specific type of clinical experience as a pre-med?
Most CNAs that I met chose to get clinical experience as a CNA because they wanted to explore the world of nursing. And as a CNA, you definitely get a lot of interaction with nurses because that is directly who you report to. On the flip side though, as a pre-med I also found this to be a plus. I wanted to be a CNA for two reasons: 1) to improve my bedside manner and 2) to understand another perspective. Being a CNA, you get to interact with a variety of medical personnel (the physical therapists, the attending physicians, the transport people, the nurses) and most importantly (or at least I think so) the families. These experiences I hoped would shape me into a better doctor; I thought I would get to see a more holistic view of medicine, and maybe learn how to incorporate that into how I would one day treat my patients.
Choosing to work in home health and hospice care was driven by these factors. They gave me an opportunity to see and experience how patients and their families perceive care. I was able to live through the frustrations of insurance companies, through the back and forth hospital visits, through the late night emergencies, through the disagreement with doctors; it gave me an opportunity to see the medical community through their eyes.
What is your most memorable experience?
My first death. It seems morbid and unhappy, but it was at this point I knew going into medicine was the best decision for me. An elderly lady was in the process of dying, but had very few visitors. She seemed so lonely. She had dementia, and would change moods in a blink of eye. She used to tell me, “I hate you, no, I love you; I hate you, no, I love you” over and over again. One night, she was murmuring in her sleep, so I went and sat in her room to keep her company. Only a few minutes later did she pass away. Despite, the lack of pleasantries that come with death, she still seemed to have this peaceful look over her face. It was a sight really hard to grasp, yet somehow I felt peaceful knowing she wasn’t alone. Death isn’t easy, nor is it supposed to be, but this experience taught me how sincere compassion could ease the suffering that endured by others.
How do I feel this experience has shaped me/prepared me for my path into the medical profession?
Getting clinical experience as a CNA has given me a better understanding of the type of doctor I want to become. I want to show empathy, compassion, understanding, and most importantly respect (respect for my patients, for their families, and for the medical team I will work with). Yes, it is something to put on the resume, but overall it’s what you make of the experience. I loved working as a CNA, and it made me even more passionate about medicine and wanting to become a doctor.
If I had one piece of advice to give, choose experiences that will give meaning to why you want to become a medical professional and not just something you need to check off a list. Especially, for pre-med students, sometimes it feels required: you need x amount of hours of this and you need these x, y, z activities, but ultimately it’s not the amount of activities, but rather, it’s the impact they have made on you that counts.
Ashley Pandolf is a 4th year pre-med student in the College majoring in Biochemistry. She works in a medical research laboratory in UVA's Medical School assisting with cancer cell signaling knock-down research while also working part-time during school breaks with hospice and home health services as a CNA. She is the President of Women in Medical Initiatives and a member of the Pre-Health Student Leadership Advisory Board.