More often than not, attributing the phrase "grew up fast" to a kid comes with a negative connotation.

This is not the case with 2020 Booneville High School graduate Audrey Brink.

A good number of the BHS students who picked up diplomas during a drive-through ceremony last week are likely looking forward to the future with varying amounts of mystery.

The 18-year-old Brink isn’t one of them.

The night before riding through the pickup line with her mother and boyfriend, Brink, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) had worked an eight-hour shift at Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston.

She’s been doing that for more than a year, the past couple of months around the most vulnerable sector of the population during a pandemic.

Dr. Nate Smith of the Arkansas Department of Health said last week those over 65 account for more than 71% of the COVID-19 related deaths in the state.

"We can’t have too many people there. It’s very rare," Brink said of the current state of nursing homes. "We had a resident pass away recently and they had one family member in, and (the family member) had to be suited up outside in PPE and when they came it they had to wear a mask and they couldn’t take their mask off."

Brink is also required to wear a mask at all times while performing her job duties.

CNAs like Brink also disinfect anything a family member brings to the facility for a resident — other than for grave situations, visits are required to occur with a resident inside and visitors outside the facility.

Often the resident doesn’t understand and become emotional.

"They cry. They’re like, ‘Why can’t they come in?’" said Brink. "Why are they talking to me through the window. We have to tell them they can’t come in, we don’t want you to get sick.

"They’re like, ‘They’re not sick, they’re fine,’ and we have to explain to them why they can’t come in and we have to try to calm them down."

The workday

The hall Brink most often works — she’s been there long enough to warrant an almost permanent assignment — has 37 residents. She cares for them, deeply.

When a recent patient, who was the grandmother of a friend, was discharged she was disappointed she didn’t get to say goodbye.

"But (her friend) and his mom hugged me and said, ‘You honestly made her stay there the best,’ and they sent me a picture of her," said Brink.

On entry into a room Brink takes the resident’s vital signs to include blood pressure, temperature, and pulse oxygen, often charting the readings.

Holding the lowest ranking healthcare position, other duties will include the less glamorous routines of dressing, showering, and a full range of other hygiene assistance for the residents.

"Some people ask, ‘Do you wipe their butt?’ Yes, we wipe their butt, but we don’t just wipe their butt," said Brink. "We tuck them into bed. They’re scared. They cry because they miss their families and they get all these letters (instead of visits)."

It goes even deeper than trying to be a calming influence — Brink thinks of many of the residents as grandparents.

"I have this married couple who every time I come in they’re excited to see me. I make things for them and she knitted my last name on a doily and I have it framed and put up in my room," said Brink. "It is the best gift I have ever gotten."

She said she is so attached to the residents she will attend funerals of those who pass away.

Dangerous time

The work of helath care workers like Brink, as has been noted in daily updates by Gov. Asa Huthinson, is particularly dangerous during the pandemic.

Brink said there is a "locked down" portion of the facility reserved for incoming residents, or for residents who have had to be out of the facility for hospital or other needs.

While Brink doesn’t work with those residents during their 14 day quarantine, she can often be found in an adjoining area caring for other residents.

Hit the ground running

Brink was prepared for her current stressful position in a trial by fire of sorts.

She was visiting a school counselor as a sophomore when, answering a question about interests, she revealed a desire to be a nurse and to help people.

"(The counselor) told me there was a class I could take and that I could get certified as a CNA," Brink recalls. "My mom (Tasha) was a CNA. She got her certification when she was 16 and she did it for years.

"I remember running home and telling her, ’I’m going to be like you.’"

To fulfill the CNA requirements Brink first had to take a medical terminology course.

Shortly after completing certification, as a member of the school’s JAG program, Brink went to work in Charleston on a 3-11 p.m. shift, and longer when necessary.

"Sometimes I stayed to over to help the night shift when they were short," said Brink. "When I stayed over and worked 11 (p.m.) to 7 (a.m.) and I’d call (counselor) Mrs. (Ginger) Ulmer to say that I’d be late. She helped me a lot."

Often those days would be followed by returning to Charleston for another 3-11 p.m. shift.

The traditional schedule is four days on, two days off, but even it was common for Brink to work seven or more days in a row.

Brink admits those days were difficult but she thinks they were worth it.

What’s next?

Long term, the goal for Brink is a BSN, with the first step becoming an LPN — she’s already been accepted at Arkansas Tech University Ozark — then an RN.

"I didn’t want to be too far away home. I thought about going somewhere bigger — I might want to be a traveling nurse some day — but I couldn’t leave my job. I’ve gotten way too attached to the residents," said Brink. "So I settled on something close to home for now."

Brink says she thinks of Booneville of the perfect small town, but doesn’t think she wants to stay here.

"My whole family and my whole life is here but I want to do something big. I want to help people," said Brink.