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Health hero Q&A: This care manager speaks up for those who can’t

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

Rita: I never met anybody like Petrona. Petrona is very optimistic…if she was not optimistic, she will not be where she is right now trying to take care of herself, you know helping others. That's what motivates her. My job is to help Aetna members with their health problems. The first time I met Petrona and I saw her face to face it was a little strange to me because I saw this elderly lady with so much pain on her when she opened the door and then she was so polite to me and told me "sit down, sit down, you want water, you want coffee?" It's like you about to start serving me and I came here to help you.

Petrona: It's very important to have somebody to make us feel familiar, somebody who makes us feel like at home.

Rita: Her barrier is that she cannot speak English fluently like she would like to. So by being with her I can help her to express what she needs to express to the doctors. So far I help Petrona with her medications. That was like the main goal. I looked through all the medications she had and wrote in Spanish on the bottle. “Ok, this is for this, you have to take it this amount of time.”

Petrona: When I met Miss Rita she helped me to focus, she put me on track to develop myself into what I am now. I feel better. She’s breaking the barrier.

Rita: The thing I like the most about you is that you're very funny. You always have a story to tell me, and I like that a lot about you. When I first met her she was positive in a lot of things but she was sad. Now that I'm with her and help her to get what she needs, she seems more positive in life. She is making progress. Little by little but she's really doing it.

Rita Cardona has been advocating for others since she was 17 years old. That’s when she began accompanying her mother, who speaks only Spanish, to provider appointments and explaining complex medical terms in ways her mother could understand. By removing the language barrier, Rita was able to open the lines of communication between her mom and the health care providers. For the first time, her mom felt understood. She also felt like she was receiving the care and compassion she needed.

Even now, years later, the two attend every appointment together. “My mom feels secure that I am always going to be there for her to provide her with the help she needs,” Rita says. “She does not feel alone.”

Rita has channeled that passion into a career helping others, including serving as a care manager for Aetna. Care management is just one of the ways that Aetna is leading in the industry in a shift to holistic and localized care.

Rita has helped members — many of whom are Spanish speakers — express their concerns to their providers and understand their care plan. She has also encouraged people to take steps toward living a healthier life, whether that‘s lining up transportation to and from provider appointments or taking them grocery shopping for nutritious food.

For members like Petrona Núñez Montúfar, Rita’s support has made all the difference. Thanks to Rita’s guidance, Petrona has learned how to manage her diabetes and daily medications. She’s also more confident about navigating the health care system.

Rita was also instrumental in giving Petrona the confidence to undergo surgery to treat painful ovarian cysts, a procedure she felt anxious about. The two spoke at length about her concerns, and on the day of the surgery, Rita brought her to the hospital and stayed by her side. “Seeing Rita gives me energy, security and patience,” Petrona says. “These illnesses wear away at my peace of mind, but she is guiding me where I want to go. She is breaking the barrier for me.” (Learn more about Petrona’s story here.)

Here, Rita talks about the role trust and compassion play in her work and the importance of taking care of your health.

Q. What made you want to become a care manager?

A. I always felt the drive to help those who needed help, especially children and the elderly. Being a care manager means I can help those who have the resources but don’t really know how to use them. I help people get better and advocate for them when they need it.

Q. What role do trust and compassion play in your work?

A. They’re both important to the relationship I have with the people I help. In this line of work, you have to show compassion. This is somebody’s life, somebody’s health. Trust is something you have to earn, and the only way to do that is to keep your word. If a member doesn’t trust me, they won’t open up to me and share their concerns and health problems, and I won’t be able to help them.

Q. How do you balance between being kind and keeping people motivated to achieve their goals?

A. Being kind is just part of my personality. Keeping someone motivated is the hard part. Sometimes people just want to give up. But you can’t get mad when they want to quit. You can only be kind to them and help them get up so they can keep going. The best way to keep someone motivated is to remind them of the reason why they made the commitment to get better. I like to remind people that there’s a prize at the end of the road once they accomplish their goals.

Q. Not everyone has access to a care manager worker. How can people be their own best advocate?

A. Learn about benefits you have access to. Find out about what your community provides that may be of use to you, like transportation, activities or help centers. Ask a friend or family member to help if you need it. And call your health insurer if you’re not sure about your benefits or how to find a provider close to you. Member services can help if you need more information about resources, and case management can offer you extra help to follow a health plan, if you need it.

Q. What has been your most fulfilling professional moment so far?

A. My most fulfilling moment of this job was when I helped Petrona get the surgery she needed. She came out of it fine and had a good recovery.

Q. What’s the best piece of health advice you’ve ever received?

A. Don’t take your health for granted. One day we’re here, and the next we can be gone. Take care of your body now, so your body will take care of you in your older days.

Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?

A. I’m not on social media that much, and I don’t watch TV. I’m more about enjoying the little things in life. I like to play with my kids, and go out with them and my husband. I also like being with my mother and talking about life back in her country and the family we still have over there.

Rita Cardona is a real member who’s given us permission to use her story.

About the author

Bonnie Vengrow is a journalist based in NYC who has written for Parents, Prevention, Rodale’s Organic Life, Good Housekeeping and others. She’s never met a hiking trail she doesn’t like and is currently working on perfecting her headstand in yoga class.


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