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Getting healthy to help others: Petrona’s health story

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

Petrona Núñez Montúfar is a real member who’s given us permission to use her story.

When Petrona Núñez Montúfar moved to the United States from Ecuador 50 years ago, she brought with her a passion for helping others. Being able to give back was a source of joy for her as she adjusted to a new country. It also eventually helped motivate her to undergo an operation that would allow her to live pain-free.

Of course, having Rita Cardona by her side didn’t hurt, either.

Building trust

Rita is a community health worker for Aetna. She first met Petrona in January 2018, when she was assigned to help the 67-year-old Scranton, PA resident with her health problems. Despite a 36-year age gap, the two hit it off immediately. Petrona, who is not fluent in English, liked that Rita could communicate with her in Spanish and was impressed by how respectful and kind she was. Rita was struck by how happy and loving Petrona was, despite her ailments. Within minutes of their meeting, Petrona made multiple offers of water and snacks. Rita remembers thinking, “You’re about to serve me, and I came here to help you!”

Their instant rapport proved beneficial for Petrona, who at the time was struggling with diabetes, low blood sugar and painful ovarian cysts. Over the course of a dozen home visits and countless phone calls, Rita empowered Petrona to take charge of her health. With Rita’s help, Petrona is now more vigilant about managing her diabetes and taking her medications. She’s communicating freely for the first time with her doctors ― Rita accompanies her to appointments and acts as a translator. She’s also navigating a health care system that’s vastly different from the one she had in Ecuador. “Rita explained the insurance, so then I started becoming more confident so that I could help myself,” Petrona explains. “Because who else is going to help if not myself?”

Perhaps most importantly, Rita helped give Petrona the confidence to undergo an operation in February 2018 to have her ovaries removed. Petrona feared being alone and dying during the surgery, as her mother had during a similar procedure years ago in Ecuador. Knowing this, Rita accompanied her to the surgery and was there for her after the operation as well.

Finding joy again

Once Petrona recovered from her surgery and began to feel better physically, she noticed her mood improved, too. She credits Rita for the change. “I had so many problems and had a huge cross to bear,” Petrona explains. “Rita has helped me get through all these problems and untangle them. She explains what I should be doing. She’s been very patient and kind.”

With her newfound energy, Petrona is once again able to do the things she enjoys, like dancing. (“It makes me feel like a Christmas tree when it’s lit with lights,” she says with a smile.) She’s also diving back into community service ― sharing homecooked, healthy meals with neighbors in need and giving whatever money she can to those without. “When I help others, I feel I’m helping myself,” she says. “I feel happier to give than to receive.”

Learn more about Petrona’s community health worker, Rita Cardona.

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.