WENATCHEE — In 2020, Eliza Zuniga found herself helping coordinate volunteers for a clinical trial of the Pfizer vaccine that would be used to combat COVID-19.
“I’m always shocked, like, 'Wow I actually participated in this, I was a part of this, I was able to recruit patients,'” Zuniga said.
Zuniga, 30, is a staff manager for Confluence Health and one of the Wenatchee Valley Business World's 30 under 35 Class of 2021. She’s worked at Confluence Health for about six years. She started as a medical assistant before moving into research.
She currently manages the Emerson Street vaccination clinic and helps staff receptionists company wide, she said.
Her job for the Pfizer trials was as the clinical coordinator, working with volunteers receiving the vaccine to track whether they were experiencing adverse side effects, she said. She also recruited people to participate in the trials.
Confluence Health enrolled about 100 people during the trial in 2020, in addition to Confluence medical staff who volunteered to participate, Zuniga said.
“So it was kind of that initial, we can get this vaccine rolling and if it’s approved, we’ve done our part and it will help millions of people,” she said. “So it was a positive thing to see.”
The research continues on the Pfizer vaccine, though she is not working for the research department anymore, Zuniga said. They are now testing to see if the vaccine is safe for children under age 12 and testing a new booster against the delta variant.
“This is a once in a lifetime positive thing, clinical trial that you can come in and know down the line that, ‘Hey I participated in that study. I was a part of the approval,’” she said.
Zuniga grew up in the Wenatchee area. She and her twin sister were born here after her parents immigrated from Mexico. Her father passed away when she was about 5 years old.
“So then my mom had to kind of go, ‘What can I do with my life? Maybe move away from agriculture as I don’t want my children to work in the fields,'” Zuniga said.
Her mom got a job at Stemilt and moved the family from Orondo to Wenatchee, Zuniga said. Her mom was a major influence on her decision to seek higher education.
After graduating from Wenatchee High School, Zuniga got her AA degree at Wenatchee Valley College and transferred to Eastern Washington University to pursue a business degree. She dropped out after half a year, uncertain if business was something she wanted to do, she said.
“So (my mom) was like, ‘Why don’t you try something in healthcare?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, healthcare, probably not my cup of tea,’” Zuniga said.
Zuniga went on to enroll in Wenatchee Valley College’s certified nursing program, still not entirely convinced it was the career path she wanted. Her outlook changed while completing her clinical hours at Colonial Vista, when she assisted a patient who was receiving her last shower before being put on hospice care.
“She looked up and she said, ‘Thank you. There’s nobody here for me,’” Zuniga said. “And that’s where I said, 'Wow, I can provide a difference to somebody, no matter how sick they are.'”
She knew then she wanted to be there for people in need and that healthcare was her passion, she said.
Her work during the pandemic hasn't changed her mind. She loves the industry and the ability to help people, including acting as interpreter and representative for Hispanic patients.
“Having the ability to help (patients), no matter what part of life they’re in — whether they’re just coming for a doctor’s visit or, you know, ‘I just found out I have cancer,’” keeps her in the industry, Zuniga said.
“We can change (a patient's) whole attitude and mindset by saying, 'You know, it will be okay,'" she said.