Putting America Back to Work: The Making of a Medical Professional

woman helping a patientLast year more than 150 million Americans went to work each day, including Luz Torres. A devoted wife and mother of two, Torres worked long hours as an ultrasound technician in a Seattle-area medical clinic in order to help make ends meet at home.

Then one day, she lost her job because her physician’s group she worked for had to move from the area. Torres, unable to afford relocation and facing a saturated ultrasound technician job market, couldn’t find work. Her world started to unravel.

“I became homeless,” said Torres, 40, who spent the last year living in her car to staying in transitional housing. “I received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which helps you get by. But then a counselor at a shelter offered me a new program.”

Torres enrolled in an education program that would help her learn new skills to achieve employment. The opportunity came from the Health Professions Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program found in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In 2010, ACF’s Office of Family Assistance announced 32 HPOG programs throughout the nation that focus on improving the work readiness and employment outcomes for low-income workers and TANF participants.

Participants receive healthcare-related training in the fields of home care aides, certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, emergency medical technicians, licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, dental assistants, and health information technicians.

Grantees work with community partners to enhance supportive services for participants, such as transportation, dependent care and temporary housing.

“Because of my medical background, my counselor told me I would be a perfect candidate for the program,” said Torres. “HPOG provided all my tuition and books, which makes it more possible for students to achieve something.”

Ever since she was little Torres wanted to become a nurse and help people. So she took advantage of this second chance at life and enlisted at Edmonds Community College, which hosts the Creating Access to Careers in Healthcare (CATCH) program. She’s been a dedicated student, taking up to 19 hours a semester to help fulfill her goal.

Torres is determined not to let her past define her future. Aside from her economic troubles, Torres also had a problem with her manual dexterity.

As a left-handed child, Torres suffered at the hands of a school system in her native Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was forced to write with her right hand, while her left hand was tied behind her back as a corrective solution. Sadly, this practice caused her left arm to be broken in two places and caused her shoulder to separate. Although Torres’ parents took her out of that school, the damage would remain with her for decades. As the young girl healed and started to improve her left-hand movement, her brain rewired to make her left-hand dominant again, while leaving her right hand useless.

After she emigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen at 21, Torres was stuck in employment where only one hand was required. Luckily for Torres, her teachers at Edmonds would help her overcome this problem, too.

“Luz is an exceptional phlebotomy student. Not only did she complete our program with a top score but she exhibited outstanding determination. Luz had a traumatic early childhood experience that affected her dexterity as an adult. Instructors worked closely with Luz giving her feedback with each blood draw,” said Instructor Erika Ferreri. “However, it was her dedication to ‘practice’ and a willingness to absorb feedback that resulted in the development of the skills required for fine motor movement for both the dominant and non-dominant sides of the body. She, by far, is a true example of what dedication to learning can accomplish!”

As of fall 2011, Torres has become a certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist. Currently she’s working on being certified as a patient care technician and a clinical lab assistant by next spring.

“I told myself that I need to have more career skills for back up,” said Torres, “so I don’t have to go through this again.”

When asked where she’s herself in three years, Torres positively responded “working.”

Torres is grateful for the assistance programs that helped her family survive during this difficult time. She believes these programs that she contributed tax dollars to when she was working throughout her adult life are necessary.

“I don’t see it as a waste. I see TANF and HPOG as opportunities to help people like me,” said Torres. “I had no idea when I went to into that homeless shelter that I was getting a career. I just needed a place to sleep.