Kara Pitou has stepped into a newly created volunteer role at LVMC – she’s working in the acute hospital’s Nutrition Services Department. Supervised by Director of Nutrition Services Julie Chudak, Kara is volunteering at LVMC to gain more experience in dietetics as she moves toward a career in that field. A native of Colorado, Kara earned her bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from the University of Northern Colorado in 2016.
“I had a lot of preconceived notions about what was healthy before I went to school,” Kara said. “A lot of that went out the door. “
Her next step toward becoming a dietician is to earn an internship, which she hopes may be approved at LVMC this summer.
“I didn’t have a lot of food service experience,” she said. “Volunteering here has opened my eyes to how enjoyable it is.”
She says Julie Chudak has been a “fantastic mentor.”
“She pushes me just enough to where I feel like I’m gaining the experience I need.”
For her part, Julie welcomes the interaction with Kara.
“It’s influencing the grooming of the next generation of dieticians,” Julie explained. “She has gone through school and been exposed to new ideas. It’s keeping current. She’s a huge help. I’m giving her tasks to do that free me up to do other things only I can do. Yet the work she is doing is needed, and helps me prioritize my work schedule.”
Kara said she is learning through her volunteer role, which is a hands-on position.
“I appreciate it’s a smaller facility,” Kara said. “I get one-on-one interaction.”
One of her tasks as a volunteer is to test random food trays being delivered to patients for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She checks the different types of diets, including cardiac, surgical-soft food and regular meals. She wants to ensure that each patient receives the appropriate meal for his or her medical condition.
“I am keeping the staff 100 percent aware that not everyone’s diet is the same,” she explained. “Overall, we want the food to be tasty to the people who are here.”
For hospital regulatory purposes, checking the meal trays goes beyond that simple check, however. She must also document temperatures of the food, and even tastes each meal on a sample tray to ensure the textures are correct and that food is not overcooked. She also charts and times how long trays take to be delivered from the kitchen to a patient’s room.
The volunteer role in LVMC’s busy kitchen fits her, she said.
“I love food. That’s why I got into dietetics. I love to research why it impacts a person’s health … I like knowing the scientific background to nutrition and the impact it can have on our health.”
As a youngster, she wasn’t interested in food, she admitted, until she experienced an illness.
“I changed my own diet because I needed to,” Kara said. One of the major projects Kara is volunteering to complete is the coordination and alignment of the department’s diet manual and diet orders. She will help create an updated production menu, which will direct dietary services staff what to provide patients receiving specific diets.
She’s also working to promote the hospital’s Heart Healthy menus and focus for February’s Heart Health Month.
“Now she’s able to apply some of the skills she’s learned through textbooks into real life,” Julie said of her protégé.
Kara has also volunteered at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s 30th Medical Group, the Santa Maria Discovery Museum, as well as the Santa Barbara County Foodbank. As a military spouse, she eventually hopes to be employed on a military base as a practicing dietician.