Since age 7, Jennifer Domich knew she wanted to become a nurse. Her dad
was dying from cancer and the nurses she’d encountered had made
a lasting impression.
“They were so kind and helpful,” remembered Domich. “They
made an effort to answer my questions and include me in everything that
was going on. Because of that, I’ve always wanted to give back to
the medical community.”
Fortunately for Domich,
Petaluma Valley Hospital in Petaluma offers a volunteer program for high school students who want
to learn more about health care careers. During her junior year at Petaluma
High School, she eagerly signed up.
Domich went on to graduate from UCLA medical school and now works in pediatric
oncology at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
“Our goal is to give students who have a dream of working in health
care the opportunity to see if it’s right for them,” said
Stephanie Bodi, patient relations and volunteer services coordinator at
Petaluma Valley. “Once they know it’s the right choice, we
do everything we can to help them achieve their goal.”
The program lets 14- to 18-year-olds explore various career paths while
on the job. Joey Wertz
(pictured below) began volunteering with the program as a sophomore at St. Vincent de Paul
High School in Petaluma. Now a senior, he assists in the emergency room,
where he helps with tasks such as stocking supplies, making beds and delivering
“I love being right in the action where I can watch procedures and
assist the doctors and nurses,” Wertz said. “I help out with
the minor things so they can focus their energy on the patients.”
Before working in the ER, Wertz thought he wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
“The brain is really interesting,” he said. “But now
that I've worked in the ER, I've also begun to consider doing
trauma surgery. It's okay, though, I have lots of time to decide!”
In June 2014, the Sonoma County Office of Education was awarded a $15 million
grant from the California Career Pathways Trust (CCPT), which is designed
to help foster relationships between local businesses and students who
need guidance in preparation for the workforce. In Petaluma, schools including
Casa Grande High have benefitted from the grant, as they’ve been
able to fund programs like Health Career Pathways, which helps prepare
students to volunteer at Petaluma Valley.
“We want to make sure our volunteers are prepared so the employers
feel comfortable,” said Casa Grande’s Jennifer Titus, who
teaches its Health Careers co-op class. “The feedback from the volunteers
has been fantastic. They never thought they would be able to get this
kind of on-the-job experience in high school.”
Titus stresses the importance of hands-on experience to help teens sort
fact from fiction.
“Many students don’t realize the nitty-gritty that’s
involved with certain jobs,” she said. “We don’t want
them to choose a career by what they see on television. Some positions
involve a lot of paperwork and other mundane tasks. Students need to see
how much work goes into each job.”
Bodi agreed: “I remember a student who dreamed of being a nurse because
she wanted to care for people,” she said. “But she didn’t
like working with complex technical equipment or certain administrative
tasks. So she ended up choosing a profession outside of health care.”
(Harendra Punatar, MD, at home with daughters Ruchi (left) and Nisha (right).
Photo courtesy of the Punatar family)
For other students, their determination to study and work in medicine is
reinforced by their hospital experience. Nisha Punatar, a Casa Grande
graduate and third-year medical student at George Washington University
in Washington, D.C., narrowed her career focus at Petaluma Valley.
“I’ve always had a strong interest in science, helping people,
and the effects of medicine on the body,” said Nisha, whose studies
have focused on global health. After volunteering at Petaluma Valley,
Nisha pursued opportunities in college to bring health services to impoverished
rural areas in Bolivia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
“Before volunteering, I didn’t know what area I wanted to specialize
in,” Nisha recalled. “So it was very valuable to interact
with the staff and doctors and get more exposure to the medical field.”
Nisha is one of three Punatars to work at Petaluma Valley. Her sister,
Ruchi, was also a junior volunteer, while her father, cardiologist Harendra
Punatar, MD, has been on the medical staff for 22 years.
“The volunteer program was incredibly helpful for both my daughters,”
said Dr. Harendra Punatar. “It really helped them decide what career
route to take.” Ruchi Punatar, MD, is now a pediatric resident at
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
“One of the most meaningful experiences I had as a young volunteer
was being able to interact with the patients,” Ruchi said. “I
had time to listen to their stories, and even though I wasn’t providing
direct medical care, I think my empathy was beneficial to their wellness.”
When Briana Degaura volunteered at Petaluma Valley as a high school freshman,
she had no idea it would make such an impact.
“One of my parents was affected by an illness when I was growing
up, so the idea of nursing really appealed to me,” Degaura said.
“Taking care of people is just second nature to me.”
After high school, Degaura went on to nursing school at Montana State University
before returning to her family and community.
(Med/Surg nurse Briana Degaura mentors and guides student volunteers interested
in the nursing profession. Photos by Scott Manchester)
“I came back to Petaluma for my internship because I really wanted
to give back to my community,” Degaura said. “There is such
sense of family here, and I like taking care of the local population.”
Hospital employees, too, benefit from the young volunteers’ energy
“Our staff feels really supported by the students because volunteers
free them to focus on patient care,” Bodi said. “And the patients
love having the students around. You have not lived until you see a smiling
14-year-old walk into the room of a sick patient who is alone. It’s
the best medicine ever.”
For more information about Petaluma Valley Hospital, please click