An innovative internship approach during COVID-19

A year ago, Jenae Vancura joined an elite group of college and high school students for a unique and innovative summer internship program at CHOC Children’s. The interns shadowed physicians, joined doctors on their rounds and attended meetings with a wide range of professionals in the medical field.

The days were long. The work was challenging.

And Jenae, a 21-year-old biology major from UC Santa Barbara, is back again this year, now serving as a lead intern for the Sharon Disney Lund Medical Intelligence and Innovation Institute  (MI3) summer internship program. She now helps guide a new group of students through the rigorous program.

“But this year is a little different,” Jenae says.

Now in its eighth year, the internship has been effectively reimagined as a virtual program, a pivot quickly executed at the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic.

virtual MI3 internship meeting
Jenae participates in a virtual meeting as part of the MI3 internship.

The COVID-19 crisis emerged just as CHOC leaders and physicians were gearing up for this year’s internship program. That meant that the 63 participating students would not be able to work directly with hospital staff or go on rounds to interact with patients as in years past.

Cancelling not an option

While many internship programs have been halted worldwide due to COVID-19, canceling the MI3 internship was simply not an option, organizers say. The experience was much too valuable and too many young had worked too hard to get this far.

“Many of our interns look to our program to affirm and motivate their decision to apply to medical school,” says Debra Beauregard, director of MI3. “Nearly all of the interns aspire to become physicians.”

So, with just weeks to go, the decision was made to recalibrate the program and put the whole curriculum online.

“The easy thing would have been to postpone or cancel,” says Dr. Anthony Chang, CHOC’s chief intelligence and innovation officer who launched the program eight years ago. “We wanted to give the students the same level of opportunity. To their credit, the team stepped up and made the internship rotation on par with previous years.”

Dr. Chang started the internship because he wanted to give young people an in-depth experience of the medical field.

“I felt like no one was really doing something like this,” he says. “The students were staying with one mentor doing one assignment. That sounds like a research assignment, not an internship. I wanted to give them access to something that gave them access to a hundred mentors.”

A rigorous pace remains

Even though the pandemic has restricted access to the hospital, it hasn’t slowed the  interns’ pace. Their work schedule starts early and, with a few breaks between, doesn’t end until the evening.

“We set up a lot of Zoom meetings,” Debra says. “Our interns have a full schedule. They participated in rounds and shadowed our physicians virtually. They were even able to remotely view multiple surgeries. This was a challenge, but everyone pulled together to provide what turned out to be a great summer program.”

a virtual session as part of the MI3 internship program
MI3 interns participate in a Zoom meeting as part of their virtual internship.

Dr. Chang says that while the interns are receiving the same level of instruction, what’s missing are some of the personal interactions that come with face-to-face contact.

“Not having one-on-one time in person and not having more intimate moments in small groups is difficult for us,” he says. “For instance, in past years they’ve had one-day retreats where they come to my house for breakfast and lunch. I wasn’t able to do that this year.”

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a little fun.

“Our directors and lead interns made sure that all interns felt connected,” Debra says. “We included team-building exercises, interactive small group sessions, and even a virtual graduation ceremony. The leads even organized a virtual talent show and Zoomie Awards, in addition to a competitive team competition. Our leads have gone above and beyond to ensure that our interns had a meaningful and memorable experience.“

Dr. Sharief Taraman, internship co-director and pediatric neurologist at CHOC, has been part of the program almost since it started. He’s confident that this year’s group is better off than students anywhere else.

“They’re way ahead of their peers in terms of experience and what they can get out of the summer,” he says. “We have a lot of moving parts, so we had to pivot very quickly.”

And to ensure the interns get all the experience they can, they are being invited back next year when they are hopefully able to receive hands-on work.

“We have offered guaranteed spots for our interns next year, so they can have an in-person experience,” Debra says. “We are confident that most will be coming back.”

Student gratitude abounds

The interns themselves are grateful for the chance to continue their internships during these difficult times.

“When I thought it wouldn’t happen, I got very upset,” says 20-year-old Julia Keating from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University. “It’s such a competitive internship.”

For Jessica Octavio, a 20-year old San Diego State student majoring in microbiology, going online was positive experience.

‘’We’re lucky,” she says. “They’ve been more than flexible. The biggest thing was learning this online interface, but as far as programming goes, it’s almost advantageous for us.”

While working on site would have been ideal, Luke Arnold says he appreciates all the work the health system staff have put into making this year’s program a success.

“It’s not ideal and obviously we’d like to have this in person,” says the 21-year-old biology major from Chapman University. “But being in quarantine has given us opportunities to work in group settings. We’re all in this together.”

For intern Nicole Fraga, working from home has had some surprising benefits.

“It can be a very rigorous process,” says the 22-year-old recent graduate from Brown University. “But ironically, I think they’re getting closer to the interns online because we are meeting in small groups. We are able to communicate on Slack and share memes. We have a smaller community.”

Dr. Chang calls the internship a “circular experience.” The health system staff, he says, learn as much from the students as the students do from the physicians.

“We’re grateful that the interns are even more inspired to go into medicine despite the pandemic,” he says. “It’s very heartwarming to hear. The future of medicine is in good hands. I see the interns push back against the temptation to give up. They have the idealism and no fear of failure.”

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From CHOC mom to CHOC employee

“You look like you could use a good cup of coffee,” Maria would say from time to time to a tired parent at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. “Oh yes!” they’d reply as she’d make them a cup.

Maria understands that a warm cup of coffee doesn’t just help sustain a parent who’s running low on sleep, but also gives them back a small sense of normalcy while their child is hospitalized.

Maria, a former department assistant in the administrative offices of CHOC at Mission who recently transferred to the laboratory at CHOC Children’s Hospital in Orange, knows this all too well. Her son Nehemiah, who is now a happy and healthy 11-year-old boy, was born with a heart condition and spent the first four months of his life at CHOC.

“If I see a mom struggling, I would try to do my best to be there for them because I understood what they were going through” she says. “They’re comforted knowing that someone understands.”

Delivering next door to CHOC

Thanks to a prenatal ultrasound, Maria and her husband Juan knew there was a problem with their son’s heart. But doctors told them they wouldn’t know the extent of the problem until he was born. Maria chose to deliver her son at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange so that they’d be next door to CHOC, and he would have close access to any specialized care he might need.

Shortly after Nehemiah was born, doctors performed an echocardiogram, a common and safe procedure that helps doctors look at how the heart is working. Dr. Anthony Chang, a pediatric cardiologist who is today CHOC’s chief intelligence and innovation officer, was present at Nehemiah’s birth.

“I was so scared for my son, but I felt like he was in good hands,” recalls Maria. “Dr. Chang explained Nehemiah’s condition and that he needed to be transported to CHOC for emergency surgery. He said it was a race against time.”

Nehemiah was born with interrupted aortic arch and ventricular septal defect, a condition with a large hole in the heart and blockage of the main artery feeding the body. Normally a hole in the heart would be considered bad news, but that hole helped him live because it allowed blood to circulate until corrective surgery could be done.

When Nehemiah was two days old, he underwent his first in what would become a series of heart surgeries, performed by Dr. Richard Gates, CHOC’s medical director of cardiothoracic surgery and co-medical director of CHOC’s Heart Institute.

After Nehemiah recovered from surgery in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU), he was transferred to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He had a feeding tube to help him eat, but as a step towards going home, he needed to work on eating on his own.

Nehemiah spent his first Christmas in the hospital, and his parents weren’t sure when they would be able to bring their baby home.

The day after Christmas, Nehemiah’s condition worsened when he contracted a blood infection called septicemia. Babies under 3 months can contract this because their immune systems haven’t developed enough to fight off overwhelming infections that originate elsewhere in their body. Once he was stabilized, his care team opened his chest so they could administer a vacuum-assisted closure (VAC) to help soak up the infection. A suction pump device connected to a tube with a foam sponge on the end, which was placed into Nehemiah’s chest to soak up the infection. His dressings were changed regularly for several weeks until the infection was gone. Once he recovered, his care team closed his wound and he was transferred back to the CVICU.

It takes a village

It would be another few months before Nehemiah would be able to go home. During that time, CHOC became home for his family. Juan would shuffle back and forth between hospital and the family’s home, bringing Nehemiah’s siblings Ethan and Giovanni, who were 3 years old and 10 years old at the time, to visit their baby brother. Maria’s mom would help the family and visit as well. During Nehemiah’s months-long hospitalization, Maria stayed by his side and never went home.

“It took a village to get my little guy through this ordeal,” Maria said.

A four-month hospital stay

Before Nehemiah was discharged after more than four months in the hospital, his parents received education and training from his doctors and nurses, so they would be able to care for him at home. He was discharged with a feeding tube, oxygen tank and medication.

“We were so excited to finally bring him home. In a sense, it was like we all got to finally go home,” Maria recalls. “My other two kids had essentially been living with their grandma, I had been at the hospital, and my husband had been going back and forth. We were finally together under one roof.”

Nehemiah’s heart was fragile, so as he grew up he would sometimes get sick more easily, and more severely, than his brothers and friends.

“If he would get sick with just a little cold, he would go from zero to 10,” Maria says.

Sometimes that would include seizures, which lead to two hospitalizations.

A second heart surgery

Nehemiah has undergone one additional surgery to repair a blockage that developed between his heart and great aortic artery, called a subaortic membrane.

“After his last heart surgery, his seizures stopped, and he started becoming normal,” Maria said.

These days, Nehemiah, who loves sports and music, visits CHOC every six months for check-ups with Dr. Chang to see how his heart and arteries are progressing as he gets older.

“His team always wants to know as he is growing, are the arteries growing with him? Eventually, he’ll need another procedure someday,” Maria said.

Despite semi-frequent trips to CHOC, Nehemiah is not afraid of doctors because for him, doctor appointments are second nature, according to Maria. Nehemiah has spent so much of his life in and out of CHOC that he refers to it as “My CHOC.”

A few years ago, when Maria was looking for a new job, her personal connection to CHOC was a big factor in her search, she says.

“I felt like CHOC was somewhere I’d want to work because I had so many positive experiences here as a mom. Everybody was very friendly. The nurses were good with all my kids, and with me too,” she said. “I remember that little things went a long way, and I try to bring that to my work here now.”

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Innovation Comes Home

Five-year-old Emma has hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) and has undergone three open-heart surgeries since first coming to CHOC Children’s― the only Orange County hospital providing pediatric open-heart surgery― at just 2 days old. After the last surgery, she went home with an advanced, wireless monitoring device provided by the CHOC Cardiopulmonary Health Intelligence Program (CHiP). This lightweight tablet monitors Emma’s blood pressure and other vital signs, instantly transmitting the data to her care team at CHOC who can incorporate it into her electronic medical record as needed. The tablet also offers her parents extra peace of mind and direct access to Emma’s team of specialists at CHOC.

Emma and her family have participated in CHOC Walk in the Park to give back to the hospital that has cared for her since birth.

Videoconferencing for “virtual visits” mean CHOC doctors, nurses and other members of her care team are always close by. It’s part of a larger pilot program that integrates several emerging health technologies to provide even more highly personalized care.

HLHS is a type of heart defect that occurs when the left side of the heart does not form properly during pregnancy. In patients with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, most of the structures on the left side of the heart are small and underdeveloped. The degree of underdevelopment differs from child to child. Perhaps the most critical defect in HLHS is the small, underdeveloped left ventricle. This chamber is normally very strong and muscular so it can pump blood to the body. When the chamber is small and poorly developed, it will not function effectively and can’t provide enough blood flow to meet the body’s needs. For this reason, an infant with HLHS will not live long without surgical intervention.

Mid-way through taking a walk in the CVICU, Emma takes a break to dance with surprise visitor Mickey Mouse.

Babies born with this condition must begin the first of three open-heart surgical procedures within days of birth. Emma underwent her first surgery when she was 6 days old and had her third surgery almost four years later. After each surgery, her parents Patrice and Kevin saw noticeable improvement in her energy, mobility and quality of life.

During one stay in CHOC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU), Emma and her family dressed up as superheroes and paraded throughout the unit.

But children like Emma need frequent office visits to monitor heart function, medication and symptoms. Over the past five years, her parents have made countless trips to CHOC, sometimes as often as every day. At home, they’ve meticulously tracked their daughter’s medications, blood pressure and overall health with pen and paper.

That changed last year thanks to a five-year CHOC pilot program designed to provide more personalized treatment for kids with heart failure. Emma’s parents now check her vital signs instantly at home with the same clinical accuracy as an office visit. With the Integrated Medical Tablet provided by the CHOC Cardiopulmonary Health Intelligence Program (CHiP), Emma’s doctors, nurses and care team are only a touch screen away.

home monitoring for choc childrens patient
Thanks to a five-year CHOC pilot program designed to provide more personalized treatment for kids with heart failure, Emma’s parents now check her vital signs instantly at home with the same clinical accuracy as an office visit.

“After her last open-heart surgery, Emma was still healing at home when we began testing out this machine,” Patrice said. “It gave us such peace of mind as we were still closely looking at her oxygen saturation and blood pressure. We didn’t have to go into the office every day to get this information—it could be recorded and sent to her specialists from the comfort of our own home.”

Instant Communication 

Surgery may be behind her, but Emma continues taking medications that require constant monitoring and adjustment. The tablet has built-in alerts to notify her doctor if the results are outside the range of the personal limits that have been set for her.

And if something doesn’t look quite right, Patrice and Kevin don’t have to drive Emma over to CHOC. They can take photos and videos with the tablet and send them directly to Emma’s care team.

Although Emma and her family love visiting with her care team, they are happy this at-home monitoring has resulted in less frequent trips to CHOC.

“Emma is on a diuretic for her heart condition, so being able to show her doctors if she is swollen or puffy is helpful,” Patrice said. “We are also able to type up our notes and questions for her doctors.”

Videoconferencing capabilities allow “virtual visits,” including wellness checks and parent education, at any time with the CHOC cardiopulmonary team. Beginning in 2018, CHiP will expand services to patients with other types of heart conditions.

“Patients and families feel much more comfortable outside of the clinical setting, but when they’re not in the hospital, they feel very nervous about the health of their child. They have much more peace of mind knowing that their child has quick access to CHOC from home,” explains Dr. Anthony Chang, CHOC’s Chief Intelligence and Innovation Officer, “We’re proud to offer a clinical environment to test and evaluate new technologies such as artificial intelligence and remote monitoring solutions.”

anthony-chang-md
Dr. Anthony Chang, Emma’s pediatric cardiologist, and CHOC’s chief intelligence and innovation officer

Far More Than a “Fancy Gadget”

Remote monitoring, video conferencing and wireless access to a patient’s electronic medical record are exciting advancements in care for children with heart failure. In this pilot study, however, CHOC is exploring the additional benefits that may come from leveraging these capabilities with other emerging health technology.

One of those technologies is precision medicine, a treatment approach that incorporates the patient’s genetics, environment and lifestyle. Another is pharmacogenomics, which evaluates how genetics may impact a patient’s individual response to a particular medication.

As a pediatric cardiologist within the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, Dr. Chang is interested in how these technologies, combined with data analytics and artificial intelligence, may further personalize treatment and improve outcomes.

“Our goal is to use all available technologies and provide the most advanced, innovative care that is best suited for the individual patient,” Dr. Chang said. “CHOC is taking a national role among children’s hospitals to develop a model that may ultimately be used by other pediatric specialties for better management of complex patients.”

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Heart Month: Ryden’s Story

At 27 weeks pregnant, Kayleen Enoka discovered her baby boy, Ryden, had hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a birth defect where the left side of the heart does not form correctly and affects normal blood flow through the heart. As a young, first-time mom, she was overwhelmed by the news.

“I felt incredibly helpless. I felt that I couldn’t do anything to help my baby and I wondered what would happen to him. I also felt that I must have done something wrong during the pregnancy to cause his heart defect. I was reassured by the perinatologist and the cardiologist that his defect wasn’t because of something I had done wrong. My mother sat with me through the diagnosis and held my hand and hugged me as I cried,” Kayleen vividly remembers.

After Ryden was born, he was immediately transferred to CHOC Children’s Hospital to be cared for by our CHOC Heart Institute. Kayleen was a partner in her son’s care from the beginning. He had to undergo a series of three surgeries, performed by Dr. Richard Gates, pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at CHOC, with the first one, the Norwood Procedure, at just five days old. During the surgery, Dr. Gates made Ryden’s right ventricle the main pumping chamber for blood flow to his body.  A shunt was also placed as a pathway for blood to flow into his lungs to receive oxygen.

heart month
Ryden was transferred to CHOC shortly after he was born for the first of three heart surgeries.

“My family and I all sat together waiting for news during the surgery. It was hard, but having so much support helped a lot. I remember when we walked into the room and everyone seemed to be moving so fast. When I asked how he was doing, I was told he was tenuous. That word has resonated with me over the years because I remember feeling that he wouldn’t survive the night. The doctors showed me where the bypass machine was and told me that it was there in case he needed it; again, I was frightened for my baby wondering if he would be strong enough to get through this. I believed in my heart that he was a fighter, but watching all the activity and how small he looked in his hospital bed, made it much harder to believe,” Kayleen says.

Ryden’s second surgery, the Glenn Shunt Procedure, performed when he was 6 months old, was just as scary because Ryden’s health was fragile, Kayleen recalls. The procedure created a direct connection between the pulmonary artery and the vessel returning oxygen-poor blood from the upper part of the body to the heart. After the surgery, Ryden had numerous complications and was hospitalized for 34 days.

heart month
Ryden at about 6 months of age following his second heart surgery, the Glenn Shunt Procedure.

By the time of Ryden’s third surgery, the Fontan when he was 4 years old, Kayleen was ready but apprehensive. “Since Ryden was a little older, I could be honest with him. I told him what was going to happen, and even though he was scared, he was aware and was still able to smile,” Kayleen says.

Dr. Gates connected Ryden’s pulmonary artery and the vessel returning oxygen-poor blood from the lower part of the body to the heart, which allowed the rest of the blood coming back from the body to go to the lungs.  Ryden spent ten days in the hospital.

heart month
After Ryden’s third heart surgery, his nurses gave him this heart pillow, signed by his care team.

Throughout the years, Ryden has experienced arrhythmias, is susceptible to colds, takes multiple medications, and was recently diagnosed with asthma. Kayleen has developed a close relationship with the CHOC Heart Institute team.

“I have always felt like I am a part of the team. In the beginning, I could never have too many questions; the doctors and nurses always took the time to make sure I understood what was happening. Now, when Ryden needs to be hospitalized, the care team always listens to my input. We work together because they understand that I know my son best,” she says.

Among the many experts involved in Ryden’s care, the Enokas have a special relationship with Dr. Anthony Chang, pediatric cardiologist at CHOC.

heart month
Ryden and his cardiologist, Dr. Anthony Chang.

“Dr. Chang has been amazing. I wouldn’t have chosen another cardiologist because he takes the time to care for his patients. Ryden really admires him and often says when he grows up he wants to work on hearts like him,” Kayleen says.

“Ever since I took care of a baby with HLHS in 1983, my passion to help children with congenital heart disease has never subsided. HLHS is a heart defect that requires the supreme dedication of both doctors and nurses in cardiology and cardiac surgery as well as intensive care. It is, however, parents like Kayleen who continue to inspire all of us to help these children, and humbles us in all that they do when these children are not in the hospital or clinic,” Dr. Chang says.

Kayleen’s appreciation for CHOC and its mission inspired her to become an employee. She works as a department assistant in the clinical education and professional development department. She also volunteers her time as a member of the Family Advisory Council, an important group of patients’ family members who provide input on decisions, initiatives and discussions at CHOC. In addition, Kayleen participates in the CHOC Walk every year with “Team Ryden,” including friends, family and cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) nurses.

heart month
Ryden inspires a group of family and friends to participate in CHOC Walk every year in his honor.

Today, Ryden is a happy, fun-loving 7-year-old, who enjoys swimming and playing baseball. Throughout his journey, one thing that has remained unwavering, is Kayleen and Ryden’s close relationship. When Ryden has questions about his heart, Kayleen is always happy to talk openly and lovingly with her son, and reminds him that he has a “special heart.” His middle name — Pu’uwaikila — means “heart of steel,” and Kayleen’s little fighter is surely living up to the name.

heart month
Kayleen Enoka and her son Ryden.

As American Heart Month comes to a close, Kayleen offers parents of heart patients the following tried and true tips that have helped her along the way:

1. Trust your child to know his limits. I’ve always let Ryden push himself, while still keeping a close eye on him of course.

  1. When your child is developmetally ready, be open and honest about his condition. You might be worried you’ll scare him/her, but I’ve always felt that Ryden has the right to know what’s happening to him.
  2. Children with congenital heart diseases may have self-esteem issues (i.e. scars, lack of ability to keep up with other children.) Remember to let your child know that he/she is special and what makes them different is also what makes them amazing. I always tell Ryden that his scar on his chest is what shows his strength. And, that chicks dig scars – it’s an inside joke (he’s never allowed to date).



Help a patient like Ryden. Donate here.




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CHOC Heart Surgery Patient Joins Security Team

As the only hospital in Orange County to perform open heart surgery on babies and children, CHOC Children’s and its Heart Institute team form special bonds with the patients entrusted to their care.

Many CHOC patients come back to visit and say thank you, some send holiday cards and share school photos so their care teams can see them grow up. A few even return to CHOC as employees, eager to be part of the organization that saved their lives.

Daniel Davis was just 13 years old when Dr. Richard Gates, surgeon-in-chief at CHOC and co-medical director of the Heart Institute, performed surgery on his heart. Eight years later Daniel returned to CHOC as a security officer, helping establish a calm and safe environment at the hospital that cared for him as a teen. He has biannual checkups with Dr. Anthony Chang, pediatric cardiologist at CHOC.

Daniel was born with a subaortic membrane, meaning that his heart had tissue growth below the aortic valve. This caused partial blood flow blockage from the left ventricle, which pumps blood to the rest of the body. This put stress on Daniel’s heart, and if left untreated, could have caused heart failure.  He had already gone through his first open- heart surgery at just three days old.

“I grew up in Orange County and wanted to return to CHOC for work because it’s so close to my heart,” he says. “Growing up I wanted to pursue a career in the military, so a security position was a first step, but now I’m pursuing my EMT certification and eventually a career in nursing.”

Daniel loves working in The Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department and observing the environment.

“I’m constantly impressed by the speed and efficiency of the emergency department staff, how they work at such a high level at such a great speed,” he says. “The emergency department is filled with the unexpected and it keeps you on your toes. Since the ED is so fast-paced, you have to be ready for anything.”

Part of Daniel’s job involves escorting patients and families on campus, as well as to and from the Orange County Ronald McDonald House. On more than one occasion, he’s been able to calm a flustered parent by sharing his story. Seeing an example of the great care CHOC provides is comforting to parents in what can be an otherwise stressful time, he has learned.

When not protecting the hallways of CHOC, he participates in Spartan races, an ultra-competitive obstacle course.

choc heart surgery
When not working at CHOC, Daniel competes in Spartan Races, an ultra-competitive obstacle course. He’s never let his heart condition or past surgeries keep him from completing his goals.

“I never used my heart condition as an excuse to get out of things like physical education class growing up,” he says. “I love being active whenever possible, and encouraging my friends and colleagues in their physical fitness goals as well.”

His commitment to fitness goals does not go unnoticed by his security teammates.

“The obstacle courses Daniel competes in require your body to be pushed to a whole new level,” says Steven Barreda, security services supervisor at CHOC. “Daniel and I work evenings, and on more than one occasion, we’ve worked overtime until 2:00 a.m. and even after a 12 -hour shift, he goes to the gym to train for his next race.”

For Daniel’s surgeons, seeing a former patient grow up to live a normal, healthy life is a joy. Being able to call him a colleague is even better.

“Daniel is fortunate to have a surgically curable condition that when treated properly and timely should allow him a completely healthy and long life, and it’s great that he leads such an athletic lifestyle,” Dr. Gates says. “We have a few patients and parents of patients who work at CHOC. It’s always great and inspiring to hear stories of how they are doing and getting along.”

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