Heidi Coughlin, a driver for the Orchards in Southington, saw an opportunity to help residents at the assisted living facility even more than just taking them to appointments or driving them to Stop & Shop.
After more than three years behind the wheel, Coughlin became a certified practical nurse. She can now walk residents into the doctor’s office and help them in ways she couldn’t before.
“During the pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of residents are deteriorating,” Coughlin said. “And driving them, I knew they needed more attention and care. And I wanted them to feel safe with me, but more importantly, I wanted them to be safe with me. So I thought that the techniques used by CNAs could help me be a better driver, that was my intention.
It’s a win-win situation for the residents and the orchards, said Coughlin, 62, who lives in Plainville.
“If I were to take a CNA with me, they couldn’t take care of another resident who is still here at home,” she said. “So the other thing is that when we go on a trip, oftentimes a CNA has to come with a resident and they have to be put on a bus by an employee instead of a resident who might actually take advantage of the trip.”
She pitched the idea to her supervisors. “Being CNA certified, I could wear both hats,” she said. “I’ll be the driver, but once I park the bus, I’ll be the CNA helping the resident who needs that extra bit of care. … My bosses supported it wholeheartedly, they thought it was a wonderful idea. And I went to school right away.
The Orchards is owned by Hartford HealthCare and the health system offers a free six-week CNA certification course.
“I worked full time and went to class three days a week,” she said. During the exam, “I had to practice three functions that CNAs do, and then I had to take a test of 60 problems. And out of the 60 questions, I got 59 correct,” she said.
The job, however, greatly reduced his downtime. She not only acts as a CNA while driving, but she will also intervene inside the residence.
“My days are very different every day, because I can work as a CNA and… when I don’t have a resident who has to go to a doctor’s appointment, I can help the CNAs who are here,” says -she.
This will be especially helpful in the winter, she says, when there is too much ice and snow to bring residents on excursions.
Coughlin said she helps residents with basic needs, helping them get dressed, take baths, get ready for bed and bring them to meals.
“But as a driver, it’s this safety helmet that I wear that protects them from falls,” she said. “I go with them, if they want, to their doctor’s appointments, I sit with them and I listen to what the doctor tells them. This is the escort; it is security.
Lois Norcross, 91, said she appreciated Coughlin, including his ability to stay “reasoned, calm and peaceful” while driving in heavy traffic. Norcross is quite independent, so he doesn’t need as much personal care as others, she said.
“She’s just a friend and a decent person, a very, very nice person,” Norcross said of Coughlin. “She’s there to help, whenever you need something like that. And she’s Johnny on the spot. … She’s a great person, and everyone loves her and she’s done a great job.
Joyce Martino, 91, said of Coughlin: “She helps everyone here. Heidi is someone who will help anyone anytime, anytime. It’s a perfect, perfect helper.
“She went to the doctor with me. She helps me on the bus,” Martino said. “She helps me in and out. My legs aren’t what they used to be. I don’t rollerblade or jump rope or anything anymore. … But she helps me all the time.
Coughlin also goes to a doctor’s appointment with Martino. “She’s there to listen to everything the doctor says to help me later when I can’t remember what the doctor says, but she definitely remembers everything,” she said.
“You won’t find a kinder, more generous soul in this place,” Martino said. “Heidi is the best.” She said Coughlin could be her second daughter.
Coughlin said his ability to support CNAs is appreciated by Orchards staff. “As you can imagine, in the healthcare industry, CNAs are desperately needed. And we feel that here. Yes, it’s hard work. And it’s like a teamwork atmosphere. for me. I step in and help where I need it,” she said.
LeaAnn Blanchard, executive director of the Orchards in Southington, said Coughlin had to obtain certification to drive the large 14-passenger van when she was hired in 2019.
“Last year, Heidi felt that while she was going to these appointments, some residents needed a little more help than others with…navigating the sidewalks or using the stairs, opening a safe door in and out of vehicles and all that. said Blanchard. “She said, you know, maybe I should get my CNA license.”
Blanchard thought it was “a really great idea”.
“The residents here and the staff absolutely adore Heidi,” she said. Blanchard called her “selfless”.
And with nationwide staffing shortages, Blanchard said, “and how difficult it is to get CNAs and anyone to work, she steps in and helps residents get down to the dining room. She doesn’t like to say no. … She is ready for anything for all the residents who live here. She just has a heart of gold.
Coughlin said her favorite part of the job is talking with residents. “I really enjoy being with them and talking with them about their lives and previous occupations, and it’s just one-on-one,” she said. “It’s very special and I enjoy every moment we have together. They’re just really amazing human beings living here, lots of stories to tell, and I just want to listen.
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She said she was looking forward to getting to work and was in no rush to leave. “Every day here is just wonderful,” she said. “I feel like I’m working at Disneyland. It’s a happy place. The people are happy. They’re kind, they’re inspiring, really inspiring.
Coughlin said she doesn’t know of any other drivers who are CNAs, but that could change. She recently won an award from LeadingAge Connecticut, a nonprofit consortium of organizations that support senior living facilities. Then she was taken to the national conference in Denver, where she told her story to 5,000 people from across the country.
“People were stopping me on the street, saying it was an incredibly innovative idea,” Coughlin said. “They’re taking it back to their locations across the country to see if they can get their drivers to get CNA certified because they thought it was a phenomenal idea. So I didn’t know the ripple effect it was going to have, but it was truly amazing.
Coughlin became a driver after 26 years working for AARP in the insurance department. “So he was always involved with seniors and helping them with their personal auto and home insurance needs,” she said. “I was an underwriter when I retired.”
Caregiving comes naturally to Coughlin. She helped when her mother had cancer. An aunt who lived with the family had Alzheimer’s disease. Her brother had Down syndrome. “So that compassion, dignity and respect has always been part of our family’s goal for him,” she said.
“So my experience kind of shaped me into who I am as a person,” she said.
Ed Stannard can be reached at [email protected].