Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Health Department interns of all ages discover healthy knowledge of themselves

Thanh-Hau Pham arrived in Tacoma from Vietnam eight years ago, finished her junior year at Stadium High School in June and was considering summer school when she dropped by the jobs center.

“There was a ‘Summer Jobs 253’ program. I looked at it and applied for a Health Department internship,” Pham said. “I want to go into nursing, so the Health Department interested me.”

Pham and three other “253” interns landed spots at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, largely because Director Dr. Anthony L-T Chen threw his support behind the program in May.

“When you live, work and play in a community, you want people to have better education, an improved economic status,” Chen said.

Pham’s internship runs from July through mid-August. She works six hours a day, four days a week. She began by filing records in the communicable disease division, then shifted to other duties, such as shadowing department employees.

Where will it lead? Some interns and volunteers later became department employees, but most take lessons — not jobs — from the experience.

Brittany Langdon was graduating with a degree in public health at Oregon State University when she interned here last summer.

“I was assigned surface water and spent a lot of time in Gig Harbor,” Langdon said.

It helped her take an honest assessment of her future.

“When I graduated nine months ago, I applied to 75 places, targeting each resume to that particular job. I didn’t get a bite.”

At 25, it occurred to her a career in public health might not be readily available, or even what she wanted.

“When my internship ended, I took a job as a Key Peninsula Parks recreation coordinator,” Langdon said. “What I learned there is that I love teaching.

“Experience is everything, and I wish my internship had come much earlier in my education, maybe my first year, not my last.”

When Langdon returns to college, it will be in pursuit of a teaching degree.

That, Chen said, is part of internships: to gain life experience, learn things about one’s self.

“All of us have had a special teacher or mentor who helped us. Let’s all give back,” Chen said. “One of the things we hope for when we work with Pacific Lutheran University nursing students — or University of Washington Tacoma students — is to give them options.”

So far this year, the Health Department has had 79 interns and volunteers of various ages; the only restriction is they must be at least 14.

One intern is 29-year-old Sam Shelton, a UWT student working on his master’s degree in social work.

“I’m trying to help build an interactive online map with every hospital and doctor’s office in the county, with information on them and what insurance they take,” Shelton said. “Everyone here is busy, but I’m surprised how willing everyone is to collaborate. There’s no ‘This is the way we do it.’ Everyone wants to help get it done well.”

Public health emerged as an option for him two years ago when, after being accepted at a medical school, he decided not to attend.

“My father and grandfather are doctors, and there was an assumption I’d be one as well,” Shelton said. “At my age, I thought it was too much to sacrifice.

“I’ve been married two years now. My family said, ‘If you’re not 100 percent committed to being a doctor, don’t do it.’ Public health may fit my skill set better.”

Both Shelton and his wife, Leandra, have also worked in recreation departments.

“I was a camp counselor in Federal Way after going to school in Spokane, and the city helped find me a temporary job as an inclusion counselor for those with disabilities,” he said. “I loved the work, and my wife runs the teen program in Redmond.”

Shelton might be the best-dressed Health Department intern. There’s a reason he’s a coat-and-tie man.

“Social workers are seen as guys who wear jeans, have beards and are idealistic,” he said. “I want to be seen as a professional, not a hippie. I dress for the image I want to project.”

And then there’s Pham, who said she has enjoyed the camaraderie of an office where people go out of their way to introduce themselves and chat. Will the experience influence her toward that possible nursing degree?

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I want to be either a nurse or an accountant.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638