Teacher’s love for helping others has been the ‘biggest reward’

Juli Thomas inspires students after medical field work


Anisha Mandem

During her class, medical CTE teacher Juli Thomas explains a question to Medical Terminology student Trevin Reagan. Thomas began teaching after being in the medical field for more than 30 years. “They stop you and say, ‘Thank you for helping me,'” Thomas said. “That’s the biggest reward.” She has been teaching for 8 years now.

Standing by the door, welcoming her incoming students, medical CTE teacher Juli Thomas gets ready to help others find their “spark.”

After working in the medical field for more than 30 years, Thomas decided to make the switch to teaching after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder.  

“I began developing a lot of lung infections,” Thomas said. “Being a respiratory therapist, we deal with a lot of people with lung and heart diseases. With that in mind, it was a hard decision to make, but my pulmonologist said that I was probably going to need to do something else.”

Originally from Colorado, Thomas spent the majority of her medical profession there. Through a medical assistant program in high school, she had the opportunity to explore the field.

Students surrounding her, medical CTE teacher Juli Thomas performs a heart dissection for her Health Science class in Colorado. Thomas said she wasn’t aware of a lot of things going into the medical field when she was in high school. Through teaching, she said she hopes to inform others and provide them with unique opportunities. (Photo Courtesy of Juli Thomas)

“You could shadow different fields,” Thomas said. “So, you learn the basics of every field, but also get an idea of the fields that might interest you, so you would know in the next step.”

Thomas graduated with a physical therapy certification and majored in pre-med in college, starting her career as a physical therapist. She later switched to a respiratory therapist. As a child, Thomas said she always had a dream of becoming a teacher. After being diagnosed with the disorder, she started thinking about her different options.

“What if I could teach something along the lines of the medical field,” Thomas said. “They were opening up a health science program in Grand Junction, Colorado, and they asked me, ‘Well, if we were to start a health science program, what would you want it to look like?'”

Thomas said she shared her ideas, experiences and concerns about the current medical field.

“These are the things I’d like to push and give incoming medical students an idea of, things I didn’t know of when I decided to go to college,” Thomas said. “And they (the program) said, ‘Sure, let’s make it.'”

Freshman Riley Wanasek gave her opinion about the best parts of health science.

“I get to learn about various aspects of the healthcare system in engaging and interactive ways, ” Wanasek said. “Mrs. Thomas is an amazing teacher, and her optimism, as well as her encouraging teaching style, makes the class one of my favorites. Every day, I look forward to her class and the new things we are going to learn.”

Wanasek said Thomas encouraged her to continue in the medical pathway by sharing her experiences in the field and how they shaped her as a person.

“Before Mrs. Thomas was a teacher, she was a registered respiratory therapist, so she has insight into what the medical field is really like, and has been able to explain and provide answers to any questions I have had about it,” Wanasek said. “When I first entered Principles of Health Science, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I got older, but with the knowledge and inspiration I’ve gained from Mrs. Thomas, I’m now certain I want to enter the medical field.”

Thomas said there were a lot of memorable moments along her journey, and every one of them has been a learning experience.

“I don’t regret anything that I did,” Thomas said. “Whether it was working in AirLife, NICU or PICU, or adult ICU CCU Trauma, and then going into teaching. Each one has had its huge rewards.”

In Colorado, an AirLife team pulls a patient into a plane to take them to the hospital. Thomas has worked in more than five different departments as a healthcare professional. “I have experienced many situations while working in Airlife,” Thomas said. “All of which have helped me grow in the medical field and as an educator.” (Photo Courtesy of Colorado Airlife)

Thomas said that the biggest reward has been being able to make a difference in the lives of her students and patients.

“You see them in the grocery store, or they email you and say, ‘Hey, I got into this program,’” Thomas said. “Or, a patient stops you and says, ‘Thank you for helping me, you listened to me.’ That’s the reward.”

Although being credited with saving many lives, Thomas said one piece of advice has changed her life personally – when she went back to college to get her respiratory therapy degree, and said that her experience there changed her outlook on life completely.

“I was extremely shy,” Thomas said. “My students right now will laugh at me trying to believe that.” 

One class exercise was a scenario with an imaginary patient, where Thomas had to make rounds with her clinical instructor.

“My instructor said, ‘Well, what would you do?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’d probably go ahead and give the doctor a call,'” Thomas said. “He says, ‘You can’t find the doctor anywhere, so what would you do?'”

Thomas said that being pushed to make decisions for herself is what made the biggest change.

“He turned to me and said, ‘You know the answer, you just doubt yourself. I believe you can, so you have to believe you can.’ And I think that’s one thing I want my students to get into their minds and hearts,” Thomas said. “You know the solution, you know it inside, so talk to me about it. And, I want to make the environment comfortable enough for them to feel good about doing that, whether they’re right or wrong.”

Freshman Chloe Vanvliet said that Thomas makes the classroom a more positive place.

“She makes sure each and every one of her students get a chance to learn and show their capabilities, as well as push them to be their best,” Vanvliet said. “And, she is there for when we need her.”

Vanvliet said that there are many things she’s learned in Health Science that are applicable to the medical field, and the class has giver her “more confidence” as she continues in the medical pathway.

“The best part of Health Science is being able to understand and analyze things, such as diseases and wellness, and getting to apply those in real life,” Vanvliet said. “Ms. Thomas has opened me to a world of medical field possibilities.”

Thomas said the one piece of advice she would give to any medical student, or student in general, is to pursue something they are passionate about.

“Don’t go in for the money or the expectations,” Thomas said. “In order to stay in the medical field, like I did for 31 years, you have to love what you do. Are you going to have bad days? Absolutely. Are you going to get tired of working weekends, holidays and nights? Absolutely. Are you going to get tired of being on call? Absolutely. But, you still have that passion, that drive, that love for the job.”

This passion, Thomas said, is what drives her to continue doing what she does.

“Search until you find it,” Thomas said. “Something will light a spark in you. So, grab a hold of it and go for it. Explore all those different options until you find that spark.”