You never really know what’s going to trigger a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) episode.

It could be the sound of a jet engine, or a car backfiring. It could be the sight of birds in flight, or the smell of smoke curling up the chimney. Any sensory association could bring back strong memories of a traumatic incident—especially for war veterans—and these flashbacks can often be so vivid, so frightening, and so real, it’s hard to know how to provide comfort in such situations.

For Bernadette Leggett, however, there was no doubt in her mind about what she had to do when one of her nursing home resident veterans began having a PTSD episode.

Leggett, who is a unit clerk at Stoddard Baptist Global Care in Washington DC, explained: “You just have to find a way to let them hear calm in your voice. Show them they are in a safe place, and let them go through their motions.”

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Surprisingly, Leggett isn’t even trained as a nurse—her role at Stoddard is to greet residents and their families upon arrival at the facility, explain how the organization works, and “make her company shine.”

That being said, she has spent 20 years working in DC hospitals and caring for her aging parents, and she’s always had a keen interest in psychology and geriatrics. She has also learned a lot from her sister Renee, an Army nurse who has seen her share of trauma. Most importantly, Leggett is a natural caregiver—compassionate, empathetic, and responsive. So, when she saw the familiar signs of PTSD in an aggressive resident, she stepped in quickly—knowing she could handle a 58-year-old who had served on the front lines.

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“I remember,” Leggett recounted. “It was the sounds that made him jump, and he was thinking he was in a war zone. I kept saying, ‘Do you recognize me? It’s Bernie, Bernadette. Just hold my hand if you have any anxiety right now. Just squeeze my hand, and we’re gonna get through this. I’ve got you. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Just hold my hand, we can go through this together.’”

“‘It’s coming, it’s coming!’ he yelled. And I told him, ‘If it’s coming, its coming for me too, and I’m right here with you. We’re in this together, just squeeze my hand as hard as you need to.’

“And he was holding my hand so hard…it was fear coming out of him. The harder he held my hand, I knew he was trusting me. ‘I’m going through this with you, we are both safe, nobody’s going to bother you, or me. Nothing bad is going to happen to us on this day, I guarantee.’ And then I just started singing hymns and he started rocking with me, and before you know it, he got calm.”

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“Then he sat down beside me in my cubicle and helped me put some papers in sequential order. He arranged the papers 1, 2, 3, and passed them to me and I stapled. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘I got you Bernadette.’ We were on our mission again. It was over.”

Leggett didn’t know it at the time, but Chantel Berrquet, a nursing aide who nominated Leggett for a CecaAward, had been standing by quietly observing the scene as it unfolded.

“The day I watched her re-orient a resident, I was so amazed by her skill that I had to stop and think about what I witnessed,” Berrquet recalled of the incident. “That day, I thought God had sent an angel to help this man through his difficult moment. Anyone could see the amazing transformation in the resident’s eyes and face after hearing Bernadette’s voice.”

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This year, the Ceca Foundation honored Leggett for this compassionate act with its monthly CecaAward to recognize and reward caregivers who do exceptional work within their healthcare communities. Ceca recognizes that not all health caregivers have medical training, and some of the best are actually clerks, cooks, housekeepers and technicians whose teamwork is so important to the wellbeing of nearly 1.5 million seniors in assisted-living facilities.

When asked how it felt to win the award, Leggett recalled orientation, when she first learned about the Ceca Award. “It was like…‘wow, they’re talking about me.’”

Leggett doesn’t think her acts are extraordinary. As for compassion, she gives all the credit to her 85-year-old parents. They raised her and her nine siblings in DC, instilling in them strong character, good-manners, and a sense of responsibility and purpose.

“They brought us up learning to be compassionate and to never forget where we come from, because you never know who you’re going to meet, or who you can help.”

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