A Caring Reflex

Veronica Quintero takes care of the “grandmas and grandpas” as if they were her own

By Kathy Ursprung

Veronica Quintero, right, the Oregon Health Care Association’s current Caregiver of the Year, takes time for a hug with Columbia Basin Care resident Eva Phelps.

Veronica Quintero’s wide, friendly smile and upbeat personality can’t help but brighten almost any dark day.

But that’s just a small part of what makes her one of the best-certified nurses’ aides in Oregon. The Columbia Basin Care nursing assistant holds the current title of Caregiver of the Year, awarded by the Oregon Health Care Association.

The honor is awarded to an individual who demonstrates a commitment to quality care through dedication to residents, staff, and the long-term care profession.

Veronica says her job serves a higher purpose.

“We’re the ones taking care of the grandmas and grandpas,” she says. “We have to remember that what we do is super important. It’s not something little that we do.”

Veronica, 22, has been a nursing assistant at Columbia Basin since shortly after graduating from The Dalles High School in 2014. She took CNA training at Columbia Gorge Community College as a way to start her career in the medical profession. She plans to continue her education and become a nurse.

Veronica’s experience working with the elderly is much longer.

“My mom was a CNA when I was young and did overnight stays,” she says. “I got really close to one patient and called him grandpa. I would do little things for him like take him water. I just want the feeling of being able to help.” Her own grandparents were a strong influence in her life, and she participated in her grandmother’s care before she died.

When Veronica is not caring for the residents at Columbia Basin, she saves her vacation time to work with her mother in a local cherry orchard. Since childhood, she has spent summers in the orchard, often working from dawn to dusk.

“I like helping my mother,” she says. “That time together is so special.”

Working in the orchards with her mother also played a key role in making her the person she is today, Veronica says.

“I help migrant families in need there, and I look forward to it every year,” she says. “I guess you could say it’s my hobby.”

Veronica also helps look after her brother, age 13, and sisters, 10 and 11. “My mom’s a single mom, so I love to help her,” Veronica says. “I go home, make dinner, and wait for my siblings to come home because Mom is usually at work.”

She also enjoys attending practices, performances, and games with her siblings.

“If my brother has a basketball game, I really want to be there,” she says.

Veronica also makes time for herself. She enjoys walking her dog, working out at the gym, and occasionally hanging out with friends. She also counts cleaning as something she enjoys.

“I’m a big cleaner,” she says. “I have to clean every day.”

Veronica’s schedule at Columbia Basin helps make her other activities possible. Her workday starts at 6 a.m. and ends around 2 p.m., giving her afternoon time to spend with her family.

The first few hours at work are focused on getting her charges ready for the day, including things like showers and toothbrushing if needed.

“You don’t really think about how much comes in a day until you help somebody do it,” Veronica says.

Breakfast is from 8 to 9 a.m. After that, she and the other CNAs work on whatever pops up, Veronica says.

“And something will pop up,” she says.

A CNA needs to be considerate, compassionate, and observant because sometimes the residents can’t express what they are feeling, Veronica says.

“What I think of is how I would want my grandfather taken care of,” she says. “They’re depending on us. They come here because they need you, and a good CNA has to be really considerate and really understanding. There’s a lot of pain involved here, and you have to understand that, too. You have to understand what will make them feel better. Sometimes it’s even as simple as giving them a hug.

“We can’t feel what they feel, but we can try to understand.”

Columbia Basin Care in The Dalles provides short-stay rehabilitation as well as long-term care.

Though young and early in her career, Veronica is seen by her employers as a leader with compassion beyond her years.

“Helping is such a natural reflex to Veronica that she doesn’t even realize compassion is part of her every action, both personally and professionally,” says Aubree Olmstead, executive director of Columbia Basin Care.

Veronica is also bilingual, which she says can help some residents with an experience that otherwise might be more scary and lonely.

Veronica says she has become quite close to some of the residents she has been taking care of for a long time.

“They have so many stories,” she says. “I would just sit there and talk to them all day if I could. I really do learn a lot from them. They give us advice. They have so many years of experience—way more than me!”

Some times on the job are a little crazier than others, Veronica says.

“I feel like before I worked here, I didn’t believe the stuff about the moon,” she says. “Now that I work here, I totally believe it. Things get crazy around here when there’s a full moon.”

CNAs also need to be prepared for the hardest part of the job: when a resident dies.

“These people grow on you—you love them—and when it happens, it really does hurt,” Veronica says. “I don’t think you’re ever ready. That’s why it’s important that every day I see somebody, I try to make their day good.”