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Harris Health System’s New Program Fills Patient Care Need, Offers Career Path

HOUSTON (Oct. 7, 2021) — A career in healthcare became a dream deferred for Crystal Montoya because of family considerations. After deciding to pursue it again in earnest, she quit her job during the pandemic because it could not accommodate her school schedule. She found a solution thanks to a newly created program at Harris Health System aimed at filling much needed positions for its hospitals—Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub.

“I’d always wanted to help people as a medical professional, but I never thought I could do it with my son being a priority at this time,” she says.

As a graduate of Harris Health’s inaugural Patient Care Assistant Externship Program, Montoya attended school and worked at the system. Today, she’s a certified nursing assistant working in a COVID unit at Ben Taub Hospital. Her work includes interacting with patients, taking vitals and helping nurses administer lifesaving treatments to COVID patients.

"This program is very special because it provides an opportunity for participants to follow their dreams and solidify a career path," says Alicia Hernandez, administrative director, Nursing Professional Development, Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. “Participants were carefully selected for being kind and compassionate individuals who would make a difference in the lives of our patients.”

The externship program is a collaboration with Capital Idea Houston, a nonprofit jobs placement organization, and the educational partners of Houston Independent School District (Barbara Jordan High School) and Houston Community College. Its grassroots approach offers opportunities to current Harris Health employees, recent high school graduates and others from the community interested in healthcare careers.

Sergio Ferreira graduated in May from Barbara Jordan with a medical assistant certification. During a jobs fair, he learned about Harris Health and the externship program. He says a recruiter identified qualities that have translated well to caring for patients in the emergency center at LBJ Hospital.

“I love it. In the short time I’ve done it, it’s been really rewarding. I enjoy seeing patients come in, get help and go home,” he says.

Ferreira wants to become an EMT (emergency medical technician) and become a paramedic. He’s learned to admire the work of Harris Health’s ambulance service and sees the possibility of joining one day.

Joselyn Limardo had been working at Harris Health as a page operator when she heard about the externship and decided to learn more. She enrolled and graduated from the program, and is now helping nurses and doctors caring for patients in the psychiatric unit at Ben Taub Hospital.

“I wanted more hands-on work with patients and it’s been great helping them directly, not just on the phone,” she says. “I thought the pace would be too much for me, but I’ve been able to adjust and have received great support and help from my coworkers.”

Limardo plans to pursue a nursing degree.

Testimonials like those of Montoya, Ferreira and Limardo are what Maureen Padilla, senior vice president, Nursing Affairs, Harris Health, and executive sponsor of the program, likes to hear.

“Patient care assistants (PCAs) are integral partners with nurses in providing high quality care to our patients,” she says. “Their support and partnership, particularly during this COVID pandemic, has been critical to helping our nurses and providers manage the heavy workloads. Many of our PCAs are so engaged that many will continue in their learning and career paths to become our future nurses.”

The eight-week externship program wrapped up in August. Harris Health has already welcomed 21 graduates into its workforce and located them across various units at LBJ and Ben Taub hospitals at a competitive pay rate. Each graduate completed a combination of more than 100 hours of classroom and clinical training. While the high school graduates already had their certification, the other participants successfully took and received their medical or nursing assistant certification.