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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Surg Tech grad leans in during medical emergencies

December 13, 2018

Fresno Surg Tech graduate Christina Santiago and familyChristina Santiago is one of those people who immediately rushes into a medical emergency situation. No hesitation. It is both her training as a Surgical Technologist and her nature. “I don’t panic under pressure,” she says. “You are to-the-wall excited, but it doesn’t come out in my work. I am completely calm right then.”

The trauma center where she works now can bring all levels of crises through its double doors. “It could be a life-threatening gunshot wound, stab wound, car accidents or cardiac tamponade,” she volunteers. “It’s just kind of in me to do what needs to be done, even though the adrenaline rush is there.”

Something else kicks in immediately. “I look at them as though they were one of my family members,” says Christina. “What if this was my mom or my son? How could I sustain their life so that their family could have another hour, another minute with them to say goodbye.”

The Sutter Health Memorial Medical Center in Modesto recognized this balance of urgency and compassion in Christina when she had her Surgical Technology program externship there in August 2017.  The Center requested that she stay with them for her second extern cycle, and she was happy to comply. By the time that second cycle ended, Christina had a job offer. Christina made a smooth segue from Surg Tech student at SJVC Fresno to the career of her dreams.

As a Surgical Technologist, Christina is trained to prepare the operating room for surgery. That entails creating a sterile environment, making certain that the necessary tools and equipment are in place and assisting the physician or physician assistant during the procedure. After-the-surgery duties include taking the patient to the recovery room and putting the surgery arena back in order.

“I have minimum contact with patients, unless there is a trauma, then I’m all hands-on,” says Christina.

Her new career is an unlikely result of her own trauma. For years, Christina was married to a man who struggled with addiction. “I didn’t know the signs,” she remembers. “His disappearing acts, money missing…the physical, mental and verbal abuse….his promises to change.” She was three months pregnant with her second son when she decided to make a different life for herself, Ezekiel and yet-to-be-born Zechariah. “My Cinderella story was broken.”

Christina’s lifeline was SJVC’s Surgical Technology program on the Fresno campus. She had started the enrollment process just before her marriage came apart, but she had doubts that the college would accept her. “I looked beat up, my kids didn’t have shoes on and we were in bad shape,” she says.

Pete Bergman, her Admissions Advisor, suggested she take a little time to recover from her situation and start the Surgical Technology program the next enrollment cycle. But she didn’t take that advice. “I knew if I didn’t take this opportunity now, I may never get to do this again,” she remembers.  “And I needed this to get out of where I was.”

Her self-confidence was not at a high place. “If you’re a person who has been hurt, you make a life out of your abuse,” says Christina. “It shifts your way of thinking about everything, and you think ‘this is it; this is all you’re going to amount to.’ You lose yourself entirely.”

This was her chance to change her script. College was the way she was going to do that. And she did.

She may have gotten out of the stresses of her marriage, but the new stresses of student life threatened to swallow what was left of her strength. “It was like learning a whole new language,” she says. “It’s like, ‘we’re going to teach you Spanish for 15 weeks, then you’re going to go to Spain.’”

Her program was demanding. Studying consumed her to the extent that she was only getting a few hours of sleep at night. The hardest part was leaving her boys every week at her mom and dad’s house 30 miles away.  Christina had sold everything they had to pay off the debts her husband had run up, so she had to ask her parents for help. “I’m a prideful person, but the only thing furnished in my house was my kids’ room.” The boys needed some stability, while Christina was focused on school.

It was especially difficult for Ezekiel, who was diagnosed with autism and who needed a steady routine in his life. Christina spent lots of time on the phone comforting him with promises of a new life they would share. But verbal communication was still a little difficult, as Ezekiel didn’t speak until he was around 3 years old. Christina had taught them both sign language early on, but now they had to depend on what they could exchange on the phone. Sacrifices were made by so many to create the life she envisioned.

Christina showed her gratitude by doing well in her program. She made the Dean’s List and, when graduation finally came around, she was given the Founders Award for her achievements.

Something else happened during that time that gave her a renewed strength and belief in the possibility of happiness. A man named Johnny came into her life at a time when she had little faith in love, trust and – especially – marriage. “I had pushed against the possibility of someone like him,” says Christina. “I had given up on marriage and didn’t want to be in a relationship. But he was patient; he respected my boundaries.”

Slowly, her trust and hope were healed. “I’m [now] married to a wonderful man and he is an amazing father to my kids. He is the opposite of what I’ve known.”

Her world was coming back together and there was much to celebrate.

Ezekiel rang the bell on stage at Christina’s graduation. That sound rang in a new era for them all. She reflected on the moment her extern site offered her the full-time position that would make all the hardship and sacrifice worth it. “When they offered me the position, I was really excited, and I cried,” she says. “They didn’t realize how much I needed and appreciated it. This job gave me a sense of light at the end of a very dark tunnel that I had been engulfed in for so long.”

Today, Christina goes to work and enjoys the fruits of a very long and difficult labor. “Just knowing that everything I went through was worth it. I open those double doors every day and it feels like home. And not everybody can say that about their job.”

Sometimes success tastes even sweeter than you think it might.

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