By Joyce Coronel
As summer winds down and families begin thinking about the upcoming school year, one local group of teenagers already has its eyes fixed far into the future.
That’s because they were selected to participate in the Volunteen leadership and learning academy at Chandler Regional Hospital. The competitive program requires aspirants to submit two written essays, provide two letters of recommendation and an official transcript, with a minimum 3.5 GPA to be considered for an interview into the program.
For teenagers interested in a career in the medical field, it’s an opportunity that provides rich, hands-on experience.
After completing 40 hours of volunteering and attending at least three educational sessions, the “volunteens” receive a certificate and a letter of recommendation. They are also automatically eligible to return to the program the following year.
Megan Giacobbi, who graduated in May from Seton Catholic Preparatory in Chandler, participated in the program last year and returned to the hospital again this year. She’ll be attending Gonzaga University in the fall where she hopes to study mechanical engineering. Her dream is to one day have a career in the biomedical field.
“I like to know how things work and I’m good at math and science, so I knew engineering was a good field to go into,” Megan said. “I know biomedicine is a growing field with a lot of new developments.”
Last summer, Megan volunteered in the IT department at Chandler Regional. This year, she’s been assisting in the pharmacy, working four hours once a week. “I take the sodium chloride syringes to the floors and deliver them to the medical rooms. Then I go back downstairs and they have stuff for me to label and put into bags. It’s interesting and I like to learn new things.”
The two-month program, which kicked off at Chandler Regional June 3, allows the student volunteers to explore more than 40 different medical departments. The teens select their summer responsibilities based on years of experience volunteering with the program.
Whether the teens are donned in scrubs handling equipment and supplies, delivering floral arrangements or answering questions at the information desk, they are making a difference in the lives of patients, their families and hospital staff members.
“The student volunteers are like sponges, soaking up everything they can about the medical field while they are still in high school,” said Lori Mercer, volunteer services supervisor at Chandler Regional.
“We’ve seen how the skills and knowledge the ‘volunteens’ learn through this program help them down the road in their education and career.”
Local media was invited to observe the student volunteers in the hospital’s simulation lab July 12. The teens were divided into groups and had hands-on experiences in various demonstration areas. From practicing CPR on an infant-sized mannequin, to learning to recognize the signs of stroke and seeing what distracted or impaired driving looks like, it was a morning of discovery.
Byron Thatcher, an ICU and telemetry nurse educator, crouched on the floor beside a pint-sized mannequin. He asked the students to imagine they’d been asked to watch their younger siblings in the pool.
“All of us have our phones and we like the social media apps—then you look up and you don’t hear any kids splashing around. You get up to look and you find your little brother or sister at the bottom of the pool.”
One by one, he walked them through CPR. “It’s 30 compressions to two breaths,” Thatcher explained. “You want to go down about an inch and make sure blood is circulating so they are getting oxygen to their brains.”
Matthew Karger, a paramedic, and Meredith Gradowski, a nurse, talked to the students about distracted and impaired driving. Injuries resulting from car accidents are one of the main reasons patients wind up in Chandler Regional’s level one trauma center. And although drivers ages 16-21 have the highest rate of accidents, that’s not the only reason Karger and Gradowski were putting the students through the simulation.
“It’s far easier to get you guys to start practicing good habits now than when you’re 40,” Karger said. The students donned goggles that simulated what driving under the influence feels like.
Chandler resident Arnold Ancheril who is going into his senior year of high school, said he was surprised by the experience.
“It wasn’t expected. It messes your vision up and you don’t know where you are.”
Esha Rajadhyaksha, another Chandler student, returned to the Volunteen program for her third year this summer. She hopes to become a pediatrician one day. “I just love helping people and science has always been a field that interested me,” Rajadhyaksha said. “Before I entered this program I was shy.” After three summers interacting with patients, she’s come out of her shell. “Now when I see a patient looking down a hallway, I know to offer them help.”
More than 275 teens applied to Dignity’s nationally recognized Volunteen program this year.