For a few minutes, the participants in Tomorrow’s Health Care Elite got a firsthand taste of what it might be like to participate in saving someone’s life.
The 12-week program at University Hospital, offered every semester since fall 2005, selects 15 high school students for bi-weekly hospital walkthroughs to meet with paramedics, surgical technicians, child life specialists, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals.
When the ambulance arrived, the group realized it was all a drill because the patient was really Rock Bridge High School junior Eric Wilkerson. He was also participating in Tomorrow’s Health Care Elite, and most of the students had just seen him in the building a few moments before the demonstration.
The students crowded around paramedics as they moved the “patient” onto an operating table in the trauma room. A team of ER physicians and nurses went to work.
“Head injury,” trauma nurse Donna Pond shouted out as she began to list Wilkerson’s injuries. “Bleeding, trouble breathing, lower extremity fractures.”
As a pretend patient, Wilkerson was able to get an up-close and personal feel for what the different workers buzzing over him actually do. “It was amazing to see so many people around you working in unison,” he said.
While Pond listed off more problems, Wilkerson helped with simulating a severed artery in his leg by squeezing a small hand-pump. A stream of red liquid spewed out of his fake latex wound.
Rock Bridge junior Katy Coleman started to feel faint and had to leave the room.
“I know Eric, so it was hard to watch him like that,” Coleman said. “It was pretty gross with blood squirting on the floor; it was very real.”
Sangita Sharma, a sophomore at Rock Bridge, had already discovered her love for medicine before participating in the mentor program. For her, the moment came when she acted as an onboard medical technician during a space camp simulation. It was there that she discovered her love for medicine and the thrill of making life better for others.
Even so, she said, the University Health Care program is helping her explore the different types of medical careers available.
“It just seems like there are so many aspects to medicine,” she said. “I enjoy getting the chance to start learning about some of them like radiology and the emergency room. This program is building a platform for me to go further.”
Tomorrow’s Health Care Elite not only introduces students to physician careers, but to a wide range of other professions in the medical field. The students are also required to log 30 hours of volunteer work each week at various hospital facilities such as the gift shop, dining hall and information desk.
“Physicians are a really small part of the program,” Kym Pieper, University of Missouri Health Care recruiter, said. “We touch on so many other jobs, and are looking at those more so. Everyone knows about docs, but not everyone knows what a respiratory therapist or a radiological technician does.”
After the ER visit and trauma simulation, students were led through a few of the hospital’s long, mazelike hallways to meet with radiologic technologist T.J. Sweet.
Sweet engaged the students by showing them how to take a CAT scan of a little toy gorilla and offered tastes of contrast dye – bitter with a hint of vanilla.
Radiology technologists graduating with a two-year degree can make an average of $65,401 per year, according to a 2004 wage and salary survey conducted by the American Society of Radiologic Technologists.
Not just large salaries potentially await Tomorrow’s Health Care Elite. At the end of the program, students will also have the opportunity to compete for a $2,500 scholarship awarded at a graduation ceremony on May 16. The scholarship requires participation in the program, completion of the 30 hours volunteer work, a 500-word essay and an exit interview.
“The goal of the project is to expose and attract high school-aged kids to explore health care careers early on,” Pieper said. “There is a shortage in health care workers and the consensus is it will get worse.”
“Hospital work forces across the country are experiencing decreases in certain areas,” said Dave Dillon, vice president of media relations for the Missouri Hospital Association. Some of the careers hit hardest by this phenomena are lab technicians, registered nurses and radiologic technologists such as Sweet.
According to the Missouri Hospital Association’s 2006 Workforce Report, Missouri hospitals reported a 7.5 percent average shortage of registered nurses. In Central Missouri, the shortage of health care professionals such as radiologic technologists fell 8.2 percent from 2002 to 2006.
Programs such as Tomorrow’s Health Care Elite appear to be helping. According to a summary of the report, “Health career promotion and outreach activities have had a positive effect on vacancy rates.”
Most of the students participating in the program are at a pivotal point in their lives as they decide where to attend college. Students such as Sharma are looking to the medical profession as a way to make a difference with their lives and help improve the quality of health care for everyone.
“I’m from India, where there are bright people but no money for opportunities like this,” Sharma said.