Kim Fyle used to work as a foreman at Korbel Champagne Cellars, where she helped run the crew that kept the Guerneville winery clean.
Two years ago, that job led to a housekeeping job at Palm Drive Hospital, where she cleaned medical equipment, mopped floors, took out trash and cleaned restrooms in the emergency room.
But for the past two months, the Santa Rosa resident has been working as an operating room assistant at Palm Drive, the result of a novel in-house training program that will soon make her part of the hospital's surgical team.
Once she completes a medical externship, Fyle's duties will include helping set up surgery cases, assisting in draping patients, handing instruments to the surgeon, retracting tissue, helping to bandage patients, cleaning up the surgical area and preparing for the next patient.
"Honestly, I had no medical history. I kind of wondered if that was something I could do," said Fyle. "I thought about it and since Palm Drive was so willing to invest in me and train me, I felt, &‘Yes, I can do this.'"
The training program, called Surgical Hands, was started in January by Mary Polo, a local scrub nurse who for some time has wanted to open a school for surgical technicians. But that endeavor is both complex and expensive, she said.
Instead, Polo, who has worked at a number of local hospitals, decided to take a different route. She envisioned an eight-week surgical technicians program for current health care employees and began shopping the idea around to local hospitals. Two hospitals, Palm Drive and Sonoma Valley Hospital, agreed to bring her in to train their employees.
The program graduated its first 10 students last week — five were ancillary medical staff, including three housekeepers. The other five were registered nurses.
Once the employee has completed the training program, he or she will enter an externship that usually takes about two months to complete. Then, within another year the technicians will be eligible for certification by taking the National Healthcareer Association exam.
Pamela Reed, director of surgical services at Palm Drive, said the program saves the hospital the expense of hiring new surgical technicians by training existing employees for expanded roles. Reed said it costs about $40,000 to recruit and train a new nurse and about $30,000 to do the same with ancillary staff.
Also, employees such as nurses who go through the eight-week training program will have more skills, giving the hospital a greater degree of staffing flexibility.
For aspiring employees, the training is much less expensive than other surgical tech programs and eventually will lead to better pay. A housekeeper makes about $14 an hour while some surgical technicians can make $28 an hour, Reed said.
Ernan Valencia, 22, of Glen Ellen, one of the 10 hospital employees who completed the program last week, said he was considering attending Carrington College in Sacramento last year to learn how to become a surgical tech.
Valencia said he would've had to take out a $30,000 loan to pay for the program and stop working at Sonoma Valley Hospital while taking classes.
Valencia began working at Sonoma Valley Hospital as a housekeeper and later started working as a gastroenterology technician, assisting physicians during patient colonoscopies and biopsies. His boss informed him about the Surgical Hands training program.