Fabric-shop seamstress Maricela Parra developed throbbing neck pains working long hours hunched over a sewing machine.
When she tried to tell her doctor about it, she hit a barrier.
“Tengo mucho dolor,” Parra, 33, said with a grimace inside physician assistant James Gray’s examining room recently.
Gray didn’t have to speak Spanish to see that she was in pain. He knew the location of her distress when she began kneading her neck.
But he needed more information to treat her. Standing beside Gray at the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles was USC College student Will Morris, who acted as translator. Morris, 20, a junior majoring in biology and Spanish, is one of 80 Trojan Health Volunteers.
The USC student volunteers assist doctors inside area hospitals and clinics. The premed students provide support from translating to helping doctors during examinations. While doctors are appreciative, students gain invaluable insight into the medical field.
Students say observing doctors in action is the heart and soul of training to become one. Their hands-on lessons transcend textbooks and lectures.
“So far, I’ve seen a toe-to-thumb transplant, abdominal surgery, arthroscopic knee surgery and open-heart surgery,” said volunteer and biology major Kacy Taylor, 21. “I watched a person’s heart beat inside their open chest after a bypass.”
The College’s Joint Educational Project — at age 35 it’s among the oldest and most recognized service-learning programs in the country — sponsors the health volunteer program, now in its 19th year.
At St. John’s recently, Morris spent two hours following Gray from exam room to exam room, translating for Spanish-speaking patients such as Parra.
Translating, Morris told Gray that his patient’s yearlong pain was worsening.
“Ask her how bad her pain is on a scale of one to 10,” Gray instructed Morris.
Parra answered 10 — and then some.
“She says it’s like hot metal pressing against her neck,” translated Morris, clad in navy-blue scrubs.
That kind of information cannot be conveyed using expressions and gestures. Neither can explaining medications and remedies. Morris always leaves a volunteer session satisfied he has made an important contribution.
“I really enjoy doing it,” said Morris, who plans to volunteer this summer on a medical mission in South America or Mexico.
College student Neil Chawla, 21, has directed the health-volunteer program for two years. He began as a volunteer, and then JEP hired him to work 20 hours a week. So far, he has placed more than 300 student volunteers.
Among other duties, Chawla counsels the premed students on ethics in medicine.
“I really like being able to influence them and give them advice,” said Chawla, a biology and international relations major who plans to become a dermatologist. “I try to be a resource for them.”
Chawla also oversees volunteer training and provides feedback on the journals students are required to keep.
Peppered in his responses is encouragement such as this handwritten note in one journal: “Kyle, I’m really glad this is working out so well for you! I can definitely see that you have the makings of a doctor.”
Jacqueline Bors, 20, a junior majoring in biology, said the volunteer program has made her realize she has what it takes.
She was put to the test, she said, when a tow-truck driver with a severed big toe arrived at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center where she was volunteering.
Bors helped to sterilize the instruments needed to reattach the man’s toe and placed the equipment precisely on a tray. Seeing the severity of the wound, Bors believed that surely the man would lose his toe. But doctors managed to save it. Bors was just glad she was able to witness the somewhat-gruesome operation.
“You want to make sure it’s not going to make you faint or throw up or anything,” Bors said. “It was nice to know I could see these things and not be affected. It was reassuring.”
Also reassuring was her ability to help hold a patient’s broken leg while a doctor reset it.
“He wanted me to step up to the plate and I did,” she said. “One of my own greatest fears in life is dislocating a limb. I feel that I overcame that fear.”
Volunteer Janice Bitong, 21, has always dreamed of becoming a doctor. She recalled when she was in grade school and pretended to check her siblings’ blood pressure using her grandmother’s Velcro arm monitor.
“I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else,” said Bitong, a junior majoring in psychology. “But my reasons have evolved. I want to be able to help people.”
She said her time at St. John’s has helped her to spot trends among patients. She sees people returning for the same ailments, often relating to high cholesterol or diabetes.
She has witnessed the challenges doctors face in attempting to persuade patients to eat healthier and exercise. At St. John’s, she said she carefully observes doctors’ bedside manners. The best doctors, she said, are ones who are good listeners.
“The good doctors don’t preach, but more like tell their patients what to do the nicest way possible,” she said. “They try to understand where the patient is coming from.”
Back at St. John’s clinic, Morris helped Gray talk to a diabetic patient with high blood pressure about the importance of healthy living. Orlando Cruz, 30, who spoke no English, just nodded and smiled.
“He told me to tell you he’s lost two pounds,” Morris told Gray.
“Tell him that’s a start,” Gray said warmly.
But sometimes, medical advice doesn’t mean the most. Volunteer Sonya Soni, 20, shared an important lesson she learned volunteering at USC University Hospital.
“Often intangible gestures, such as a warm smile, or genuine words of optimism and hope can spiritually heal a vulnerable patient,” Soni said. “As I work closely with the nurses and listen closely to the patients, I become more and more passionate about my dreams.”