Speechless at Graduation

Her graduation left Denise Dawson speechless. Literally, painfully and uncomfortably speechless. As in, being physically unable to speak words. Which was a problem, given the fact that Dawson still needed to pass her Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) skills exam and mingle with perspective employers at a recruiting event following her graduation.

With a nasty case of pneumonia accompanied by laryngitis that would sap her voice for a full two weeks, Dawson soldiered through her graduation, rasping out whatever pleasantries she could to the recruiters from senior care facilities in attendance. Ill health notwithstanding, Dawson called her graduation from JVS’ HealthWorks™ “the happiest day I have had in years.”

“I could feel the sincerity of your words in how proud you are of the program, and us, the students who participated in the program,” she wrote in an e-mail to HealthWorks™ manager Angelica Generoso who spoke at the graduation. “I was also overwhelmed by the kind words and intro you said to the audience on my behalf. It meant a lot to me, never hearing anyone say those words aloud about me - and especially to be spoken in front of a fine gathering of prospective employers who were listening. The measure of my appreciation is off the scale. Your words were a gift I will never forget and always be grateful for.”

Although she had graduated the program, Dawson had not passed her skills exam on her first attempt, but she was determined to nail it on the next attempt. Which she did. JVSWorks let her concentrate on career stuff and recuperation before we caught up with her. Two weeks later, her voice hoarse but audible, she called. The job hunt was progressing. She had “nibbles” and was hopeful and confident that she would have full time work in a matter of weeks.

“I want to be in a good place and not waste my talent or sell myself short,” she said. “I’m going to be a Registered Nurse (RN) one day, but in the meantime, I’m going to be the best CNA that any place ever saw.”

Dawson had a difficult upbringing including an unstable family, foster care and becoming an emancipated minor at the age of 17. Professionally, she had a diverse, but not always stable career working on a fishing boat, with Hughes Aircraft, and proofreading market materials for Princess Cruises. A motorcycle accident left her with a torn-up ankle requiring multiple surgeries. Dawson ultimately befriended her podiatrist and earned some money traveling with the doctor to senior care centers to help with the patients.

Gravitating toward the medical field, she also began to volunteer at UCLA Medical Center where she worked in the patient acute care unit, often serving as the intermediary between the families in the waiting area and the medical staff.

“I loved working with the nurses, and I think they liked me because I’m good with people,” says Dawson. “If you ask a nurse how he or she became a nurse, nine out of ten will say they started as a CNA.”

As 2012 was winding down, work – even temporary – was drying up for Dawson and she had to obtain Department of Social Service (DPSS) assistance. Visiting the EDD office in Marina del Rey, she decided to pop into the JVS WorkSource Center which is in the same building.

“I went up to heck the job board and one of the last things I looked at was this flier for HealthWorks, ™ free training to be a CNA,” she recalls. “It was like fireworks. It lit my world on fire and I jumped through all the hoops.”

During the initial meeting with Generoso, Dawson learned what all the applicants learned: out of 50 in the room, only 10 would be selected for the training program. A determined Dawson made the cut. Despite her expertise and desire, the class was not the easiest, and Dawson said she “learned a lot about herself socially.”

“They condense so much information in such a short period of time,” said Dawson. “My mind was working faster than it had in a long time. I wish we had had 200 clinical hours. That was some of the hardest and most fulfilling work I had ever done.”

“Then right toward the end of the class, with about two days left, I got pneumonia.”

A visit to urgent care enabled Dawson to get some medication, but little relief.  She was running a 102 fever on the day she took the skills exam, which she failed by a single point. The test supervisor assured her that she would “make a great nurse one day.”


Dawson went home, rescheduled the test and returned to the Red Cross training center on a daily basis to practice and re-practice her skills. On the day of the re-test. She apologized to the nurse for any perceived “bad sportsmanship” and blew through the test. With what little voice she had, she made sure she could be heard, thereby overtaxing her vocal cords and further delaying her recovery.

She feels the strain was worth it. Dawson passed.

What remains of her voice chokes up as she harkens back to that graduation, where she heard featured speaker Linda Muggli of Silverado Senior Care talk about the privilege of being able to help people who are near the end of their lives, but who may no longer be able to properly express that appreciation.

“I’m salt of the earth. I try to do good things,” says Dawson. “All I want to do is try to help others feel good, and if I do, that’s my reward.  If you can make someone who is on their way out a little more at peace, my goodness, what an honor!”