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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

High school drop-out makes up for lost time with Surgical Technology career

September 24, 2020

Crystal Cramer SJVC Surgical Technology StudentCrystal Cramer never thought she would be where she is today. As a Certified Surgical Technologist, she works for Inland Valley Surgery Center, a medical group that specializes in eye surgeries. “I set up surgical instruments and supplies in the OR (operating room) and assist during eye surgeries for retinal detachments, cataracts and insulin implants for diabetics,” she says. “I love doing eyes because you don’t get to see that (those procedures) too often.”

Job security, the excitement of her work and a steady income are all new for her. Getting to that place was not a direct path, however. Crystal spent her early twenties doing administrative work. She got married and had her daughter, Kameryn, at twenty-four, but was widowed before she reached thirty. Her husband’s social security benefits allowed her to be a stay-at-home-mom for several years. During that time, she earned her high school diploma online.

At almost forty, Crystal knew she needed a new plan; one that would replace the financial benefits about to expire and allow her to continue to provide for her and Kami’s basic needs. That leap in income could only come with additional education. This reality triggered one of her greatest points of insecurity.

As the youngest of four siblings raised by a single mom, she dropped out of high school her sophomore year. “I was scared to go back to school,” she remembers. “I came from a broken home that didn’t have the structure in the household that provided me that support and influence I needed to complete high school.” What could possibly make a new education experience any different?

Two things would ensure a better outcome: she loved the idea of working in healthcare, so studying something she enjoyed would boost her enthusiasm. And she now had great support at home.

“I’ve always been fascinated with healthcare and being a patient advocate; and surgery is so important,” says Crystal. And, as a young teen, Kami was now much less dependent and more supportive of her mom’s ambitions. A new voice of encouragement came from Erik, Crystal’s fiancé. Time for a plan.

Crystal discovered SJVC’s Surgical Technology program on the Temecula campus. “I did a lot of research and had a notebook full of questions – really ready to bombard them,” she remembers of the Open House she attended. “I pretty much knew what I was walking in to before I signed up.”

She started her program with about sixteen other students and quickly found her groove. “I loved the small class; it really helped us to have that one-on-one feel. A bigger class at university would have just really been harder.”

Not that there were no hard parts. “I was never a good math student and it was my worst subject ever, but Rafael Oropeza (faculty) explained it in a more logical way that you could really connect with. I ended up with an A in that class.”

Balancing a busy home life with the intensity of an accelerated Associate degree program could never be described as easy, however. “Being a full-time student, a mom, a good partner and keeping up with the house…. I admire how some of my classmates are able to do that and work (employment) too,” says Crystal.

Even so, many of her much younger classmates looked to her for guidance and advice and began to call her ‘Mama Bear’. “I would joke around, ‘Yeah, I’m the old lady of the class’,” she laughs. “I would try to help with personal issues, relationships or problems, just because I’m older and have been there. We all had such a bond.”

“Crystal was our ‘mama bear’, and was always teased about her driving,” says Alfonso Martin, Surgical Technology Clinical Coordinator, who always kept an ear to the ground for employment opportunities for graduates.  “She had shared with me that she was interested in working in eyes, so while searching for new sites I came across a surgery center that was hiring. I mentioned (to the surgery center) how hard working and amazing Crystal is, and she was accepted there. Her externship became on-the-job training, and she was hired the day after graduation.”

“Mr. Martin matched me with a perfect place,” says Crystal. “I can’t express how thankful I am to him. He is, by far, the best teacher I’ve had in my entire life. He gives that commitment to every student in the classroom.”

But it was still a long, difficult road to get to that happy ending.

After all, it had been a couple of dozen years since Crystal was a student, and the program’s pace and amount of information could be overwhelming. “It was hard work; a lot of papers and a lot of nights falling asleep with my laptop open. There were times I would doubt myself; I would cry, and I would think ‘I can’t do this; it’s just too hard’.”

Her home team came through. “Erik supported me through every step of the way,” says Crystal. “He told me, ‘You’re so smart, but you don’t give yourself enough credit. You can totally do this program.’”

 “And then, my daughter wrote me the sweetest note that I will treasure. “Hey, mom. This is just a quick little note to remind you that you are special and loved by not only me but everyone around you. I know school is super stressful and you’re scared to fail. But I believe in you and I know you can do it. Love, Kami”

“Oh my God, I can’t give up,” thought Crystal. “How would I look in her eyes?”

There was a third voice never far away. Crystal’s mom, Barbara, called often from Texas. “Whenever I was having a moment, she would bring me back to reality,” says Crystal. But it was not just her mother’s words that gave her strength, it was the example Barbara set for her throughout childhood.

“No matter what was thrown at her, she was super mom,” says Crystal. “It was not what she said, it was her actions. My dad and her split when I was six. She worked so hard and we really didn’t have anything. But she made the best of what we had. She wanted to be an attorney and she did go back to school, while she was doing hair on the side. But my sister got pregnant at fifteen and my mom dropped out of school. I saw what she went through. It made me the person I am today because I put my heart and soul into everything I do.”

That level of commitment is what propels Crystal in her current Surgical Technologist position. “I think I’ll be where I am for a good while,” she admits. “My coworkers are like a big family and I love everyone I work with – they’re amazing.”

It was a rocky road to get to this place of career contentment, but Crystal has no regrets. “Without going through those trials and tribulations, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.” And just maybe, her daughter is picking up a few life pointers. “She’s at a stage in her life where she wants her own independence and freedom, so I don’t know if she’s watching and listening. Only time will tell.”

Crystal might need to take that sweet note of encouragement out of safekeeping every now and then when she needs a little reminder of a daughter’s truest love.

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