En español | As a young girl growing up in Mexico City, Rosa María Gonzalez dreamed of becoming a nurse. But after just three years of grade school, the oldest of nine children had to drop out to work. She pitched in at her father's small business, making tortillas, and learned how to sew.
Years later, after she'd come to the United States to live with a brother, life took an unexpected turn. Gonzalez was a married young mother of four, living in the San Fernando Valley of California, when she walked into a soon-to-open convalescent home, hoping to find work in the kitchen or laundry. There were two lines for applicants: one for the housekeeping positions she sought, another for nurses and certified nursing assistants.
An administrator made a mistake and directed her to the wrong line. She got to the front and was asked where she got her license to be a CNA — a term she'd never heard before. As she walked away embarrassed, the administrator took her aside to apologize and wound up seeing something in Gonzalez that she didn't see in herself. She selected Gonzalez to go through training to become a CNA — and footed the bill.
Nearly 30 years later, the 66-year-old Gonzalez remains dedicated to her career and to the residents she serves. Today that's in the skilled nursing center at Friendship Village, a retirement community in Tempe, Arizona, where she's worked for 14 years. “I love what I do,” she says. “I don't think I could do anything else.” That remains true even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst crisis U.S. nursing homes have ever seen.
She works on a unit that helps rehabilitate patients, most of them in their 80s, who have been discharged from a hospital and are recovering from injuries, illnesses or surgeries. Brittany Dudley, director of nursing for the health care center at Friendship Village, says Gonzalez was “born to take care of others.” She describes how Gonzalez calms, reassures and builds trust with both residents and their family members.
"Nobody comes here saying, ‘Oh, yay, I finally made it to the nursing home.’ They're terrified, they're ill, they're tired and they're stressed,” Dudley says. Gonzalez “lets them know that everything's going to be fine, she's going to be there for them, they're going to get better.”
She tunes into residents’ likes and dislikes, understands what they need and figures out how to motivate them. She's been known to go back and forth to the kitchen half a dozen times to find something her residents will eat so they can grow stronger.
Refusing to retire
So far, 12 residents at Gonzalez's nursing center have tested positive for the coronavirus, two have died and 54 staff members have contracted it. “This virus has changed all of us.… The amount of stress caused by trying to keep people healthy and happy through this, as well as balance personal lives, is taking a toll,” Dudley said by email. “But Rosa and the team work tirelessly, because we are needed."
Even behind her personal protective equipment, which includes a mask and face shield, Gonzalez's warmth emanates.
Watch: Resident's thank-you moves nursing home employee
Dorothy Denyer, 89, who came to the center to recuperate from a respiratory infection, gushed about Gonzalez's thoughtfulness and her care to keep everyone safe from COVID. “She's always very careful, clean, and she does everything she's supposed to do about the virus,” Denyer said in a video interview conducted at the facility before she was discharged.
She described how Gonzalez shared stories about her own family and took an interest in Denyer's life. “My second daughter was recently in an accident, and she told me she would be praying for her, too,” Denyer said. “It seems like I've always known her.”
The youngest of Gonzalez's four children, Yvonne Eucebio, 31, says her mother has always been the sort who takes care of others before herself. As a small child, Eucebio tagged along with her mother to work and was so inspired that she went on to become a CNA herself; she hopes to start nursing school next year. For a while, mother and daughter worked at the same Phoenix-area facility, where Gonzalez held a second job, showing up at each shift with a big box of doughnuts. “Everyone called her Mama Rosa,” Eucebio says with a laugh. “And everybody loved me just because I was her daughter."
Even before concerns about COVID, Eucebio says that she and her siblings encouraged her mother to retire. Now, she worries that Gonzalez might get sick. But Eucebio respects how much Gonzalez loves her career and her independence. She “doesn't see her job as work,” Eucebio says. “It's just a second home.”
The Arizona Health Care Association, described on its website as “the state's largest professional long-term care association and advocacy organization,” named Gonzalez its CNA professional of the year last year. Included in the nomination form were quotes from discharge surveys in which residents and their family members heaped on praise.
"The staff was great, but Rosa was amazing,” wrote one person. “She made my Mother's stay 5 stars,” said another. “Rosa is a very unique woman who is all heart in her tender, loving, and compassionate care,” wrote a third. “I would entrust her with my life."
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