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Young hospital volunteer is a surgeon in the making

One might say that Johnny Steward was destined from birth to be a surgeon.

He was delivered by Dr. Dan Smith, Park Rapids' premier surgeon. Little did Smith know when he gave Johnny that pat on the rump 15 years ago that he would be launching a baby's career path.

Johnny is St. Joseph's Area Health Service's youngest hospital volunteer. He spends Friday afternoons on the hospital's medical-surgical floors, delivering ice chips to thirsty patients and updating papers filed in patients' charts. He tags along with the doctors when he has time.

The freckle-faced youngster is polite, almost formal in his demeanor, but he's a soothing presence to sick patients and people coming out of surgery. He's volunteered since November 2007. He's loved medicine since - well - at least 15 years.

"I've always had an interest in the medical field since I can remember, actually," he says shyly.

"Helping patients is really fulfilling and purposeful. When you work with sick people it makes you want to help them."

He's one of 50-some "service to patients" volunteers at St. Joseph's.

"He's just great," said volunteer services coordinator Betsy Meyer.

"That's the point of junior volunteer programs in a hospital setting," she said. "It gives those kids the opportunity to experience first-hand the ins and outs of what it takes to work in healthcare."

Johnny lives in rural Akeley with his parents, brother and sister, a dog and cat. He just finished 9th grade in home school.

"I've always been interested in anatomy," Johnny said. "I read lots of books. I'd like to do heart or brain surgery."

"Johnny came in with a very specific set of goals," Meyer said. "He would have loved to have scrubbed up and observed surgeries the very first moment that he volunteered. He is just that driven."

He's been called "Doogie" a reference to the TV child prodigy doctor.

He takes his menial tasks seriously, and is proficient at reading signs on patients' doors indicating what they can or can't have for nutrition, liquids and medications.

As he soaks up medical knowledge like a sponge, he fills a vital role. Post-surgical patients get thirsty, so he keeps their ice filled and their water fresh. He politely asks each patient what he can do for him or her. Because he's so unassuming, patients respond even when they're not feeling well.

Pneumonia patient Bruce Stensrud took off his oxygen mask briefly to strike up an easy-going conversation with Johnny. "Good for you," Stensrud congratulated Johnny when he learned his age.

"He's very happy and doing exceptionally well on our 'med-surg' floor," Meyer said. "Our patients love him but our staff adores him."

Nurses greet him by name; the females can't refrain from giving him some motherly affection.

He's a very good worker," said Certified Nurse's Assistant Andy Symanietz. "He's a breath of fresh air."

He excels at science and math. He can't wait to take a chemistry lab course this fall at a Christian school co-op.

He works at a Walker grocery store. And, he finds time to be a regular kid.

"I like computers," he said. "I like building plastic models."

He's a World War II buff and reads war history when his nose isn't buried in an anatomy book. He hunts with his dad, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officer.

He'll return to the home classroom this fall, but will continue to volunteer.

"He just has a gift," Meyer said. "His personal set of values really coincides with the core values of St. Joseph's."

And, should Dr. Smith ever need surgery in the future, there's a willing volunteer waiting in the wings.