While people are struggling to keep and find jobs in this sour economy, certain aspects of the medical profession are still going strong — and come with great rewards.

While people are struggling to keep and find jobs in this sour economy, certain aspects of the medical profession are still going strong — and come with great rewards.

There's no more noble profession than that of caring for the sick, and no more hands-on member of the health care team than the certified nursing assistant. Working in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and in long-term care, certified nursing assistants or CNAs spend more time working directly with patients than most other members of the health care team.

They are critical members of the health care team because they spend so much time with individual residents, explains Vanessa Copeland, RN, assistant director of nursing services at Rogue Valley Manor's Health Center. "They notice when the resident is not feeling right or looks different. They're your first eyes and ears about that resident and can alert the nurse. You really get to know that person," she says.

Simple things like getting out of bed, going to the bathroom and eating can become difficult or impossible when disabled. "It's humbling to think of how important these intimate and most private tasks become," Copeland says. "When the residents are totally dependent, you're doing everything for them from range of motion to brushing their teeth, to taking them to the bathroom, to putting them to bed, positioning them just right to make sure they don't get pressure sores."

CNA2 training programs prepare nursing assistants to work in rehabilitation facilities, acute care settings and with dementia patients.

Asante Health System hired 70 CNA2s last year, according to Jennifer Susi, recruitment manager for Asante Health System. "The acuity of your patient is what's different about working as a CNA in a hospital," says Susi. "They're caring for patients who are sick acutely right now."

Most hospitals and care facilities have teams and devices to lift and move patients, but you'll still need to be in good physical condition to keep up with the job. "CNAs have to be able to lift up to 10 pounds to 5 feet, and up to 50 pounds pushing and pulling," Susi notes, reading from the job description. "Reaching, carrying, helping to transfer patients in and out of bed, wheelchairs; CNAs have to be able to stand and walk for long periods of time."

Here in the Rogue Valley, certified nursing assistants start out at $10.25 to $10.60 per hour, and overtime and shift differentials can add to your earnings. "For a lot of our aides it's a career for them, something they really enjoy," says Beth Nolan, Health Center administrator at the Rogue Valley Manor. "It can also be a gateway career."

There are several career progression paths open to nursing assistants, particularly in large, multi-type health care organizations that offer career mobility and promotion from within. Nursing assistants can train for different patient populations and health care settings, they can certify as a medication aide and they can also continue their nursing education to broaden their scope of practice. "Many of those who became CNAs are now in school to become LPNs [licensed practical nurses]," Nolan remarks. "It's a great start for a lot of people who want to continue their education. If you understand the job of a CNA, you're going to be that much better of a nurse."

One-on-one patient care — there's nothing like it to really get to know another person, especially in long-term care. "You hear a lot of stories, its amazing what they've been through. I've heard everything from being in the depression to someone who was a prisoner of war in WWII," Copeland says, thinking of those she knows at the Manor. "The CNA is there for the resident. They're like a friend, a caregiver who's there every day to greet you with a smile."