Juana’s Story: Reclaiming a Career in Health Care
A self-described “people person,” Juana Gomez naturally gravitated toward a career in caring. She earned two degrees in nursing and enjoyed working closely with patients as an LPN—until Stargardt’s disease got in the way. With her eyesight deteriorating and an as-yet-undiagnosed condition affecting her hearing, Juana had to step back from the work she loved.
“It was hard, because I always loved to help people, and I don’t see myself just sitting at home,” she says. “My husband pushed me to do something for myself. He told me that it might not be the same as normal, but I can still do something. And he was right.”
Juana decided to travel from her home in El Paso, Texas, to HKNC headquarters in Sands Point, New York, to explore her options and get some training. Through HKNC’s Vocational Training Program, she had the opportunity to learn new skills and put them to the test in a real work environment.
The first step was to evaluate her interests and aptitudes. Juana showed potential in several areas—even breaking a record in a challenge that simulated a retail work experience—but her heart kept bringing her back to her original field of choice. The vocational training team suggested that she revisit the idea of staying in health care, but approach it from a different angle.
“It was hard to find something in the field, but they didn’t give up,” she says. Ultimately, Juana’s HKNC job coach found her a placement at a physical therapy clinic in Port Washington, New York—a temporary work experience that led to a full-time job offer. "My last day is Thursday, and my boss keeps asking, ‘Do you really have to go home to Texas? Can't you stay with us?’" she says.
The repeated attempts to convince her to stay are especially gratifying because her success at the clinic didn’t come easy. On Juana’s first day on the job, people seemed to tiptoe around her; they were reluctant to let her do anything on her own. "I had to win my place,” she says. “I had to show them that they didn't have to take care of me, that they could depend on me."
That night, Juana went home and made a map of the facility and brainstormed ways to make sure she could be self-sufficient on the job. The next day, she hit the ground running. In the weeks that followed, Juana demonstrated her ability to learn quickly, work independently and solve problems. She established organizational systems for electrodes, ice packs and other supplies, and her people skills became a clear asset. Her efforts caught the attention of the owner, and in time, her role expanded to include tasks that involve patient contact like icing.
Now that Juana’s training is complete, her HKNC job coach is partnering with the vocational rehabilitation agency in El Paso to find her job opportunities closer to home—ones that will enable her to keep helping people.
Juana’s concern about her career prospects wasn't the only thing that brought her to HKNC. "I didn't want to become isolated from my family. I knew I needed to learn how to communicate in a new way," she says.
When Juana first arrived at HKNC, she didn't know any sign language or braille. Many people are intimidated by braille, but Juana dove right in, doing more work than she was assigned each day and advancing to Grade II in a remarkably short time. She exhibited similar enthusiasm for her sign language studies, creating her own “book of signs” to record everything she picked up through interactions with other students during her downtime. Today, Juana can communicate with everyone she meets on campus. And her family has taken an interest in learning her new languages.
"My husband wants to sign, and my daughter wants to learn braille,” she says. “I have my books, and I will start teaching them. It means so much to me that they want to connect with me."
Juana is leaving HKNC with a new confidence. "My family is proud of me, and I am proud of me. It's something of a new feeling for me," she says. "I made a promise to my family, and I made a promise to myself. I will use everything I've learned here. I won't waste any of it.”