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On the front lines: Certified nursing assistant found his job – and his calling – in Spokane Valley nursing home

CNA Christoper Zuninga is photographed April 30 in front of Sullivan Park Care Center in Spokane. He’s confident in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
CNA Christoper Zuninga is photographed April 30 in front of Sullivan Park Care Center in Spokane. He’s confident in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In the halls of Sullivan Park Care Center in Spokane Valley, walkie-talkies are the new thing, helping residents play bingo from their rooms rather than gathering as usual.

Keeping up the fun and loving environment despite COVID-19 changing procedures across the board is a task Certified Nursing Assistant Christopher Zuniga has been training to do for his whole career.

Zuniga started volunteering at Sullivan Park Care Center over a decade ago.

He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do professionally, but after growing up with a father who was a registered nurse, he was drawn to the medical field.

“Sullivan Park is a special place, with the culture and how we treat our residents and so I wanted to be a part of that,” Zuniga said.

A director at the care center, which provides both rehabilitation and skilled nursing services, saw Zuniga’s potential and encouraged him to become a CNA.

Now, Zuniga is a restorative nursing assistant who helps residents maintain the progress they have made in rehab while living at Sullivan Park. He also takes new CNAs under his wing, acting as a mentor and helping them not only keep up a positive attitude but also hone their craft.

Certified nursing assistants deliver direct care to patients by helping with their daily routine, including assisting with bathing and grooming, helping with meal times and monitoring residents’ conditions and behavior.

During the pandemic, CNA’s have not only adjusted to the constantly changing safety procedures to protect patients and themselves from COVID-19 but also have been helping residents connect with family and friends who can no longer visit.

The care center added hospitality aids to help facilitate Zoom calls with families, and care teams have been coming up with individualized activities based on each resident’s interests. They encourage families to write letters and send notes as much as they can.

“Families mailing letters has been a really big deal,” Zuniga said.

Zuniga recalled a resident who recently was supposed to have a special surprise visit from a family member to let him know they had named their daughter after the resident.

The trip was canceled, so instead the staff at Sullivan Park set up a Zoom call with the entire family.

“It was just a very touching process,” Zuniga said. “They’re still able to have that communication.”

For Zuniga, moments like that are why he has continued to work as a CNA and at Sullivan Park for years.

“There are so many touching moments with our residents, from seeing them coming in with a wheelchair and then seeing them walking out,” Zuniga said. “Watching that growth is a big deal.”

Zuniga loves facilitating growth in residents and in his fellow CNAs. He went back to school to earn a bachelor’s in public health administration and has taken as many training seminars as possible from Prestige Care, Sullivan Park’s parent company.

The training and mentorship he received from the start of his career has helped him grow and create a positive and loving care environment, Zuniga said.

“I was just a kid too, so there was a lot to learn there but there was also a lot of opportunity to grow,” Zuniga said.

He passes that same advice on to young CNA’s today.

“You will get it. You’ve got to be patient,” Zuniga tells them. “Don’t forget the negative, but change your focus to the positive.”

Zuniga tells young people thinking about becoming a CNA to come volunteer or work at Sullivan Park in a job that requires less training.

“This a very rewarding but a very hard job to be doing on a daily basis,” Zuniga said.

Witnessing CNAs in action everyday was a big part of why Zuniga took the leap himself and also why he has such an appreciation for the rest of the staff that keep Sullivan Park in action.

“It’s all of us,” Zuniga said. “It takes every department – laundry, the kitchen – everybody doing their job correctly to create that environment.”

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