In Fall 2007, Maricela Rangel-Garcia became one of the first UC Merced students to sign up for a new, non-clinical volunteer program in the busy Mercy Medical Center Emergency Department (ED).
Her participation in what has become a vital and growing program cemented her career path.
“I decided to volunteer because I wanted general experience with doctors and patients,” said Rangel-Garcia, a Clovis resident who graduated in 2009 with a degree in biological sciences. “The program was a great way to gain exposure.”
The once-fledgling ED Volunteer Program is now more popular than ever.
“It has been a blessing,” Director of Emergency Services Philip Brown said. “And the patients are the ones who benefit the most.”
Today, this decade-old partnership between UC Merced and Mercy Medical Center has grown from nine student volunteers in 2006 to nearly 50. More than 200 students turned out for a recent informational meeting on campus, and there are always more applicants than slots.
“We can only offer a volunteer position to about a third of the students who apply,” said Marcee Samberg, coordinator of the ED Volunteer Program.
The volunteers play important roles in supporting and assisting the medical staff, patients and families in the ED, which had roughly 70,000 patient visits last year alone. Their primary function is to ensure that patients are comfortable and informed —communicating information between the staff and patients, bringing extra pillows or blankets, or simply spending time with patients during their ED stay.
“It’s a good introduction to the health care profession,” Samberg said. “They are caring for patients and offering the skills that they have to enhance the patient experience.”
Besides helping patients and benefiting the medical center, the program is also a way for UC Merced students to get a firsthand look at the ED and connect with community members who present for care. Volunteers must be at least sophomores and carry a minimum 3.0 grade-point average.
Applicants also must pass background checks, meet health requirements, commit to at least one volunteer shift per week and attend mandatory orientation and training sessions.
“Most of the students who apply are thinking of medical school or becoming a physician assistant, nurse or pharmacist,” Samberg said.
The program prizes students who are mature, compassionate and service-oriented. Bilingual skills are another plus, but not required.
Volunteers cover 3.5-hour shifts, usually between 12:30 and 11 p.m. The program has expanded in a limited way to the intensive care unit, where the most experienced ED volunteers are trained to provide additional services each week.
In 2015, ED volunteers clocked about 3,500 hours of service in the ED and about 650 hours in the ICU.
Rebecca Cosmero, a junior from Oakdale and a biological sciences major, is entering her fourth semester as a volunteer. She is considering a career as a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.
Cosmero said the program offers an invaluable opportunity to watch and listen to the nurses and doctors, and to work with the patients.
“You really get to see how a hospital functions,” she said.
Rangel-Garcia, who was part of UC Merced’s inaugural graduating class, is now finishing medical school in the San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (PRIME) at UC Davis. She said throughout her education, she has always remembered the goal of helping patients feel comfortable and informed.
“I tend to keep those two things in mind,” she said. “I just learned how impactful it is, and it’s not that hard to do.”
Through the volunteer program, Rangel-Garcia saw how hospital staff members work as a team, and she began to understand how some patients landed in the ED for health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure due to a lack of continuity of care.
Rangel-Garcia plans to practice in the Valley — one of the most medically underserved areas in California — after completing her residency. As a mentor to students at UC Merced, she often recommends the ED Volunteer Program as a place to learn and network. She said Samberg wrote her a letter of recommendation for medical school.
“You get the exposure to the medical field, plus you get to know people and they get to know you,” Rangel-Garcia said.