By COLLEEN SCHRAPPEN
Colleen Jordan had been working at the Valley View senior care facility in Elwyn, Pa., for about eight years when Mercy LIFE assumed its operations in January 2014.
Nursing aid Colleen Jordan, center, converses in sign language with Yolanda Certo, left, and Elsie and Eugene Rychlak, three of the 41 residents at the Valley View Mercy LIFE senior care facility in Elwyn, Pa. All of Valley View's frontline staff and patients are deaf.
Image credit: Dan Z. Johnson/©CHA
Jordan, 32, didn't have to worry about job security. Mercy LIFE (Living Independently for Elders), a division of Mercy Health Systems, pledged to retain all existing staff. But the patient care assistants, like those at other Mercy LIFE facilities, would be required to earn state certification as nursing assistants.
When Jordan found out that she would need to go back to school, she was thrilled, she says. "It's a great opportunity."
It's an opportunity — dubbed the "Excellence in Care" program — that came about through teamwork and innovation, says Molly Crumley, the director of operations at Valley View.
Like its 41 residential patients (or participants, as Crumley calls them), all of Valley View's front-line clinical staff are deaf. "The deaf community is very tight-knit," Crumley says. "When it comes to caring for the deaf elderly, the best person is someone who is deaf," who can empathize and communicate.
Foundation for learning
But no curriculum existed to train deaf care providers as certified nursing assistants, so Mercy forged its own path.
"We made a commitment to that staff to get them the certification they needed and support them through the process financially and educationally," says Crumley. "We did a lot of research."
Colleen Jordan, a nurses aid at Valley View Mercy LIFE senior care facility in Elwyn, Pa., speaks in sign language with Kathy Ely, who resides at Valley View.
Image credit: Dan Z. Johnson/©CHA
For starters, Mercy obtained a grant through the United Way to help pay for the students' classes at Delaware County Community College and for two American Sign Language interpreters who would attend class alongside them.
Then the curriculum was mapped out. The 133-hour program comprises 10 weeks of classes, including work in a simulation lab, and six weeks of clinicals. To avoid interrupting their work schedules, Valley View's 13 patient care assistants — eight women and five men — were divided into three cohorts.
Back to school
Jordan, who works the second shift at Valley View, is part of the first group. For a few months before classes started in July, she and her colleagues participated in an informal college preparation course with Anna Marshalick, the director of education at Mercy LIFE.
The students come from different educational backgrounds: Some attended schools for the deaf, some public high schools; one grew up in South Africa and learned a different form of sign language.
They hold something in common, though. "Most had not been in a formal course setting in quite some time," says Marshalick.
She and Sharvette Law Philman, interim dean at Delaware County Community College, set up a campus tour, showed the students where to park and eat and introduced them to the simulation lab. The students met their instructors and pored over course books to get a leg up on medical terminology.
All that preparation paid off.
"It helped us to find our strengths and weaknesses," Jordan says. "It helped us with time management.
"At first, it was a huge adjustment being on the college campus, but then it became easier later on. The biggest challenge was to balance our time with school, work and home."
The Valley View students have benefited from a low student-teacher ratio, says Crumley. "They don't get lost in the shuffle … Delaware County has been so flexible and accommodating."
Four students and two interpreters and the instructors participated in twice-weekly classes, allowing for plenty of one-on-one help.
The interpreters also accompany the students now that they have moved on to their clinicals.
"I enjoy the clinicals very much," says Jordan, who was to have completed her practicum training at Fair Acres Geriatric Center early this month. "I've learned some tools that can apply to my workplace."
Marshalick says she has noticed a change at Valley View as well. "The care has improved for our participants. There's a synergy now."
Eventually, "the scope of responsibility (for the clinical staff) will be re-evaluated because of their increased level of knowledge," she says.
First, the students will need to pass their state certification exam. This, too, has involved some collaboration and adaptation. Nursing assistant certification falls under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Part of the test is written; part is performance-based.
One skill students have to demonstrate is taking blood pressure by listening through a stethoscope. The education department is allowing the Excellence in Care students to instead use an electronic cuff that includes a digital display.
Jordan and her cohort will be ready to take their certification exams by January, Marshalick says. They will use the weeks between clinicals and the test to study and brush up on their skills.
A few weeks after that, the next group of students will start classes. Crumley expects that all 13 patient care assistants will have their certification by the end of next year.
"This has the potential to be an ongoing thing as new employees are hired," Crumley says. "It's difficult to find folks who are deaf with clinical and medical backgrounds. This program could open the doors for other students. And our current students feel the sky's the limit."
Jordan, for one, says the program has changed her long-term career goals.
"It got me thinking about pursuing a nursing degree," she says. "I would like to continue in school and study to be a licensed practical nurse or a registered nurse. It's like I found my passion to help, working with health care teams, (patients) and their health … maintaining their quality of life."
The program "means a lot to me and my team because it will gain diversity in nursing and recognition of the deaf community."
For her part, Marshalick calls the Excellence in Care program" one of my favorite projects of my career.
"This is a program that has been an evolution. It has taken many individuals, but mostly the dedication of these four students," she says.
"It's something very special that I hope can be replicated in other groups. Who knows? We'll see what kinds of possibilities it will open up."
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