Born and raised in Boyle Heights, Jorge Orozco remembers seeing much of his community heading to “el Hospital General” for medical care. Showing an early interest in health care, a teenage Orozco decided to volunteer at the hospital, where he now serves as CEO.
“I remember volunteering and seeing how relieved people at the hospital would be when they saw me, someone who looked like them and could speak the same language as them,” says Orozco. “Representation is really critical in the medical field and it makes a bigger difference than people might think, especially in a community like Boyle Heights.”
Orozco began his professional career as a physical therapist at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. After nearly two decades of dedication, he became Rancho’s Chief Executive Officer in 2007, a role he would serve until his transition to CEO of LAC+USC Medical Center in 2018. Looking back, the Boyle Heights native says those early days at the Historic General Hospital in the 80s are what truly inspired him to give back.
“There’d be times when I would question if I even belonged in the room, because I didn’t look like other people in my position,” says Orozco, looking out of his office window with a view 0f the community he grew up in. “That’s when I was brought back to why I wanted to do this kind of work, to bring change and inspire, to show people like me that where you’re from is never something that should hold you back, but something you should embrace.”
LAC+USC Medical Center’s strong connection to the community through the patients it serves, its staff and volunteers is one reason why Orozco says the hospital plans to undergo a name change this year to better reflect the neighborhood and its history. The county has not yet announced the hospital’s new name.
The volunteer program at the historic General Hospital formally began in the 1940s when there was an increased need for local assistance, as many of the center’s nurses were overseas supporting soldiers during World War II. Gaby Hernandez-Gonzalez, Director of Volunteer Services at the center, says the initiative continues to serve a pivotal role in the community.
“Everyone here plays such an important role in making sure that we’re able to provide services to everyone who walks through our doors,” says Hernandez-Gonzalez. “Not only do volunteers provide a very needed service for the hospital, but they’re also able to learn about the field, work side by side with medical professionals and be able to see themselves in those positions.”
The program is always open to new volunteers aged 16 or older, who are able to assist in a wide array of the hospital’s services. A list of opportunities available are on the program’s webpage and folks interested in applying can do so online.
Hernandez-Gonzalez says many of the program’s participants over the years have come from Boyle Heights and have gone off to pursue careers in the medical field. An Eastsider herself, she says one of her hopes for the program is to provide guidance and mentorship for community members to grow and give back to the neighborhood.
One such volunteer is Natalie Sahagun, who began volunteering as a high schooler in 2019 after learning about the opportunity. While in the program, she would help support the hospital in a variety of ways, from intaking clothing donations for patients in need to sanitizing their rooms during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sahagun says that while attending UC Riverside to pursue a degree in biochemistry, she experienced imposter syndrome as one of the few Latinas in the room. She says returning to the program helped her overcome this uncertainty and become more confident after she was paired with a mentor from Boyle Heights, Dr. Karla González.
“There’s just something so special about being able to see and talk to someone who grew up in the same neighborhood as me and is doing the type of work that I want to do,” says the 19-year-old. She adds that Boyle Heights natives at the hospital serve as a reassuring presence for Spanish-speaking patients.
“There really is a need for people like us in medicine serving our own communities. I see it anytime I get to work with locals who tell me ‘tengo confianza en ti.’”