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FOR THE KIDS : Healing Help : Youngsters praised as they gain insight and a head start on medical careers in their work as junior volunteers at a number of hospitals.

August 27, 1992|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Nevin Sabet was in the ninth grade, she put on a red and white striped apron and became a volunteer at Simi Valley Hospital.

She thought she wanted to pursue a medical career, but she wasn't sure. Now, more than three years later, at age 17, she is enrolling at Cal State Northridge as a pre-med student. Her fall semester classes start Monday.

Volunteering at the hospital four hours every Saturday convinced her she was on the right track.

Simi Valley Hospital, as well as several other hospitals in the county, have thriving volunteer programs for teen-agers. In the old days, the youthful volunteers, exclusively girls, were known as "candy stripers." Now hospitals bristle at the term, because some of their volunteers are male.

This year at Simi Valley, five of the 43 junior volunteers are boys. Another 20 youngsters are on a waiting list. It's the same story at other hospitals where teen-agers are clamoring to get into the programs.

Why the interest in a job that pays nothing? "They are interested in finding out if they want a medical career," said Sue Clion, who heads the hospital's junior volunteer program. "At most colleges and medical schools, if you have not done volunteer work in a hospital, they don't want you. It's very competitive."

She estimates 80% of her junior volunteers go on to careers as nurses, doctors, medical technicians or in some other medically related field.

Getting into the program is no piece of cake. Volunteers, who must be between 14 and 18 years old, undergo a five-hour orientation where they learn such things as how to wash their hands (scrub between the fingers, around the wrist, and turn off the faucet with a paper towel) and how to operate a wheelchair (use the brake when stopping and back through doorways).

Then they train three or four weeks in the department where they'll be working. To help in the patient care units, they must undergo 40 hours of additional training. Here they learn such skills as what to do if a patient chokes. Then they must pass a six-page test.

Volunteers pay $3 a year in dues and a $10 uniform deposit. For their efforts, they get a free meal when they work. On duty, they must adhere to a strict dress code: no jewelry, no perfume, and hair must be up or pulled back.

For Nevin Sabet, the best part of volunteering was the contact she had with patients. She changed beds, brought water and meals to patients, and tried to cheer them up.

"I'd talk with them and try to keep things that were troubling them off their minds," she said. Patients are "amused" by the striped uniform, she said. More than once she has received advice about the dangers of smoking from cancer or respiratory patients.

During the school year, the volunteers put in three or four hours a week at the hospital and in the summer it goes up to two or three shifts a week. The work is varied. Volunteers might be asked to care for children whose parents are in the emergency room, or they might hold a child while he gets stitches. They might work the front desk, do filing in the laboratory or in the X-ray department. They serve as gofers. They wheel out discharged patients. They deliver flowers.

"We expect from them what's expected from paid personnel," Clion said. "They have a lot more understanding than people give them credit for."

At Los Robles Regional Medical Center, the junior volunteers number 110 with another 60 on a waiting list. They must undergo 12 hours of training and pay $30 for a uniform before they can work in the Thousand Oaks hospital.

They usually work out of the volunteer office, doing errands, but since June the teen-agers--a quarter of whom are boys--have been assigned to a nursing floor with more direct patient contact.

"The volunteers can let the nurses know if the patients have needs," said Karen Chellevold, assistant director of volunteer services. Then they can bring water, an extra blanket, or a meal tray.

They learn their way around the hospital fast, taking medication to a nursing station, running the copy machines, and helping to admit and discharge patients.

Sometimes they read to pediatric patients, and help other patients write letters. They have served as translators for patients who speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and even Farsi.

The volunteers are cautioned about patient confidentiality. "What they hear and see stays here," Chellevold said. "The students are very good about that. They are often the first and last impression a patient has about the hospital."

At Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, the junior volunteers, numbering between 45 and 50, work out of the front desk doing errands, such as delivering mail or flowers. Patient contact is limited. But some of the girls work on the maternity ward helping the nurses with chores like folding sterilized hospital gowns for visitors to wear.

Some hospitals, such as Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo and St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, have only summer programs for junior volunteers.

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