The life of a rehab nurse technician

By Savannah Huls/El Inde

It’s early morning on Sunday, November 9. The sun has not yet peaked over the horizon. Elm Street is dark and quiet. At four o’clock an alarm goes off. A light in the square, beige house on the corner turns on. 

Emma Carlton shuts off her alarm and reluctantly rolls out of bed. She turns on the shower, knowing it’s the only thing that wakes her up. The steaming water runs down her face as she mentally prepares herself for her 12-hour day. She gets dressed in her navy blue scrubs and walks quietly to the kitchen as her three roommates rest peacefully around the house. She fries one egg and butters a slice of whole wheat toast. At 5 o’clock sharp, she walks out the door. This is her typical Sunday morning.

Carlton is a senior at the University of Arizona, majoring in physiology with a minor in emergency medical services and special education. When she’s not at school, Carlton works at Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital in northwest Tucson as a rehabilitation nurse technician. “I basically do the odd jobs that nurses don’t do,” Carlton said. She works two consecutive, 12-hour shifts a week. 

Encompass Health Rehabilitation Institute of Tucson is a rehabilitation hospital for people who have experienced a life-changing illness or injury, providing inpatient rehabilitation for stroke, amputation and other complex neurological and orthopedic conditions. Carlton has been working at the hospital for less than a year. 

Upon arriving at the hospital in the morning, Carlton is assigned anywhere between six to ten patients to look after that day. Although the rehabilitation center is not specifically for elderly people, Carlton normally works with patients between 60 and 80 years old. She begins by waking them up for breakfast or for physical therapy sessions in the hospital. She helps patients brush their teeth, go to the bathroom, and do any necessary tasks that they cannot do on their own.

“The majority of what I’ll do during the day is getting patients in and out of a bed, tending to their needs, getting them water, delivering them their food or taking any basic vitals,” Carlton said. She must fulfill any orders that the nurses do not want to do, such as taking urine and stool samples. “I essentially have the role of a certified nursing assistant,” Carlton said. A certified nursing assistant carries out all the basic care tasks for patients such as dressing, eating, bathing and exercising. They also assist with medical tasks such as drawing blood, monitoring vitals and reporting behavior. 

A few months ago Carlton was assigned to a patient, an elderly woman who was not getting along with the nurses or the other techs. Upon her assignment, Carlton immediately recognized her Midwestern accent: She was from South Dakota. “I could tell because that’s where my mother’s family is from,” Carlton said. So Carlton commented on her accent and asked her about her hometown. The patient who was known for her ill-nature opened up to Carlton about her life. “We bonded over having that shared experience living in the same state which was really cool,” Carlton said. She genuinely enjoys the personal relationships she makes with some of her patients. “I do miss some of the patients I get to work with day in and day out,” she said. 

Carlton is working this job to gain experience for what she hopes to do after she graduates from the University of Arizona. Her goal is to attend a physician’s assistant program, which requires a minimum of hours, from 500 hours to over 2,000 of hands-on patient care experience. “Since I am going to be graduating this year I wanted to get a head start on that so I can jump into a P.A. program sooner rather than later,” Carlton said. 

Although Carlton enjoys the positive experiences she has working at the hospital, she does not want to do it forever. “Forming relationships with the patients is really nice but when I have to answer a call over 200 times a day, that can get really cumbersome,” Carlton said. She has learned that patient-care can be an exhausting and monotonous task, so the job has taught her a lot about what she doesn’t want to do in healthcare. Carlton hopes to work in more of a fast-paced environment in the future. She will continue her job as a rehab nurse tech until she graduates from the University of Arizona in May 2021.

Sunday evening, after a long day of work, Carlton arrives back at her home at about 7 p.m.  She says goodnight as she walks past her roommates watching Netflix in the living room, takes off her scrubs and sets out a new pair on her dresser. She gets ready for bed, turns her light off and slips under her covers. She releases a deep sigh as her heavy eyes close next to her alarm clock set for 4 a.m.

Emma Carlton, Junior year at the University of Arizona.
Photo courtesy of Emma Carlton.