Central Oregon Community College

Up on the third floor of Central Oregon Community College’s (COCC) Health Careers Center — a glassy, sophisticated facility that punctuates the center of the Bend campus — students of the nursing assistant program are spending part of their day focusing on feet. Lots of feet.

“It looks like a big spa day in here,” laughed Kari McDaniel, nursing assistant program director, as students practice the essentials of caring for bedbound patients by working on each other, learning the importance of connecting with a patient as they provide nail care. “More than half our skills they do on each other,” explained McDaniel, who oversees the college’s two levels of certified nursing assistant (CNA) training.

Students work in mockup hospital rooms, where the detailed layout makes for an authentic experience. Stoic mannequins, tucked into beds, help to set the stage. “It’s set up to simulate the hospital environment and allows students to practice in a safe space while getting a feel for the actual setting,” said Mary LeLouis, a Level 2 instructor in the program. “Being able to practice in a replica of an actual facility allows the students to get a better sense of performing skills with real patients.”

In Oregon, Level 1 CNA certification yields a skill set where nursing assistants can perform daily care essentials, from moving patients to feeding them to dressing them. They learn to monitor vitals, manage catheters and work in close concert with nurses. Level 2 training expands on these abilities and incorporates things like IV removal, blood sugar monitoring and a thorough understanding of communicating with patients with dementia.

Certification for Level 1 requires passing a state exam and the training — at both intervals — is a good way for students to not only master basic care concepts, but to also test the waters for a more immersive health care career, such as nursing.

“Probably two-thirds to three-quarters go on (beyond CNA training),” McDaniel said of her students. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily into nursing, but definitely in the health care field.”

In fact, a recent redesign to the nursing program at the college now has students achieving their CNA certifications in their first year of becoming nurses, underscoring how essential the skills are. Kelly Soto, a new RN who just went through the COCC program, said that she learned a great deal from CNAs during her capstone clinical experience. “I spent my time on the surgical floor of St. Charles-Bend with an amazing group of nurses and CNAs who truly supported and encouraged me,” she said.

The CNA levels take just one term to complete, which means that Level 1-certified individuals — with no prior experience — can jump into the workforce after just mere weeks of schooling. Earning COCC’s well-rounded nursing assistant certificate, however, takes a three-term commitment and wraps in subjects like health psychology and interpersonal communication.

While the nursing assistant program at COCC is a relatively fast way to launch into the field, the skills that students learn are as much about empathy and compassion as they are about heavy lifting and hard work — strong ingredients for any health career. They learn how to communicate with patients and how to create positive interactions with folks facing tough situations. It’s challenging stuff, but full of rewards.

And it’s a fast-growing part of the health care spectrum. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast an 11 percent growth rate for the nursing assistant sector between 2016 and 2026, a response to the vast boomer population that’s steadily arriving in its golden years. More and more, CNAs are in demand.

To further address this need and help train more caregivers, the college recently entered into a nursing assistant program partnership with Redmond’s Ridgeview High. Approximately 20 students are completing the program each year, developing job skills while their credits apply to high school requirements. McDaniel hopes to create the same arrangement with other high schools.

CNAs work in settings like hospitals, long-term care and home health. Locally, program grads are finding work with employers like St. Charles Health System, Bend Transitional Care and Regency Pacific Management. And whether they build meaningful careers within the CNA specialty or expand on their training and use it as a segue into other health care fields, the start that students get at COCC orients them with both confidence and capability for the path ahead.

For more details, see the nursing assistant program at COCC or call 541-383-7700.