Skyler Shipley grew up in a family of helpers, so it was only natural for the 18-year-old Haverhill resident to decide to enroll in the health occupations program at Whittier Regional High School.
A certified nursing assistant who received that title as part of her high school's vocational training program, Shipley graduated this month with the Class of 2020. Prior to accepting her diploma, she juggled remote learning and a co-op job at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital, helping patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My sister is a nurse and my mom has always worked in the health care field, so I've spent my whole life around health care," Shipley said. "When I was 13, I worked at an ear, nose and throat doctor's office. I've always wanted to do this since I was little."
Certified as a nursing assistant when she was a high school junior, Shipley started her stint at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital the summer before her senior year. Before that, she worked at the Wingate Nursing Home in Haverhill.
For Shipley, who hopes to eventually become a trauma surgeon, paying her dues as a certified nursing assistant is just part of the process. In fact, she welcomes the opportunity to see the health care industry from all angles.
"I get to see a lot of what goes into being a doctor or nurse. I do paperwork, take blood sugars or people's vitals," said Shipley, who plans to attend the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in the fall as a premedical major.
Since graduating from Whittier Regional, Shipley has devoted at least 40 hours per week — usually more — to the rehabilitation hospital, caring for patients, some of whom are infected with COVID-19, on an inpatient and outpatient basis.
"Each day, I go in and get patients ready for their day," she said. "We help them get ready for therapy or if they're having visitors, help them to the bathroom or with breakfast. I'll do whatever patients need me to do that the nurses are too busy to do. I normally work 7-3, but since the pandemic started I'll help whenever needed."
Much of Shipley's day is spent calming frightened patients who may see nurses and staff like her roaming the halls in gowns, N-95 masks or other personal protective equipment.
"When we come in with our masks and gowns, patients will say, 'I don't have the coronavirus,'" said Shipley, who wears gloves and a mask regularly and will layer on a face shield, N-95 mask and a gown depending on the situation. "We have to remind them it's about safety, and we want to keep them calm.
"Sometimes I'm scared, but I have to power through it," Shipley added. "I can't be scared to go out and help people. It's my job."