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Growing Future Doctors Through WMed Early Introduction to Health Program

wmedIt’s difficult for children to imagine themselves as something they’ve never seen before. 

Like a perfusionist. 

How can you imagine that you could be responsible for keeping a person alive while they undergo heart surgery, unless you meet one and learn about how they operate the heart-lung machines that take the blood out of patients, oxygenate it and then return it to the patients’ bodies, while doctors are performing open heart surgery. 

Students at Milwood Magnet School’s Young Doctors club can now aspire to being perfusionists — or other medical professionals — thanks to the Early Introduction to Health Careers program from the Western Michigan University Homer D. Stryker Medical School.

During a recent session of the club, the students met perfusionist Jake Holloway via Zoom during the “Day in the Life” segment of their afterschool program. He shared a video of the heart-lung machine and explained the rewards of the high-stakes, high-stress career. 

“You know someone on that operating table is counting on you to save their life. There is nothing better than being able to help someone out,” he said. “This is the ultimate teamwork.”

In addition to learning about the work of perfusionists that day, students also worked with second-year medical students Christine Hua and Kevin Steknik, who explained CPR to students and gave them a chance to practice the basics of chest compressions on CPR mannequins. 

As Milwood students were being handed scrubs and stethoscopes, sixth-grader Mailia Morrow said she wants to be a surgeon when she grows up and eighth-grader Juan Ortiz said it was “cool” to learn about doctors. 

EIH is a multi-level pipeline program that provides students in elementary, middle, and high school with an eye-opening, hands-on learning experience that explores various medical careers, the science behind some of the medicine, and a look at the pathways that can lead to those careers. 

The program was launched in 2014 by Dr. Cheryl A. Dickson, associate dean, Health Equity & Community Affairs, for WMed. It helps students envision careers in biomedical science and healthcare and targets students in underrepresented-in-medicine minorities, as well as students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation college students. 

Started as a Saturday academy (now called EIH2) for high school students, it then moved into the elementary schools (EIH1) with fourth and fifth graders at Northeastern Elementary School. 

EIH2 10th graders attend weekend science academies for research, mentoring and presentations by health care professionals. Two dozen of the students participate in a two-week summer intensive staffed by faculty from Kalamazoo College, WMed and Stryker Corporation. EIH1 students study a special curriculum that explores body systems, visit the medical school, and prepare research presentations. 

Last year, EIH 1.5 for middle school students (which the students have named the Young Doctors Club) launched virtually at Milwood Magnet School: A Center for Math, Science and Technology. This is the first year students have been able to meet in person. 

“The earlier you start the better in terms of building career interest and helping create a career trajectory — particularly for students that may be underserved and have low resources,” said Dickson, who is board certified in pediatric emergency medicine. 

wmed huaKey to the EIH efforts is presenting students with role models who represent their communities, so they can more easily envision themselves in these careers. Holloway is African American, as is Dickson. Hua, one of the medical students working with the Milwood club, is an Asian American woman. 

Milwood science teacher Tracy Chappell said she was surprised how many students were excited to participate in the program — even virtually — last year. This year students have enjoyed the hands-on learning opportunity, especially given that the lessons are delivered by young medical students who are generous with their encouragement and in sharing their own experiences as students. 

“The diversity of the professional speakers has matched the diversity of the Milwood student body,” Chappell said. “Students see adults that look like them being successful in helping people. Many of these students have voiced they chose to be in this club because someday they want to help others. They also get excited when the information connects to what they are currently learning in school or to their families. Students have shared their own or family experiences with the club.” 

Dickson said the lessons are designed to be hands-on and to provide simulations. Students study models of the heart or learn how to use a bag valve mask to inflate a person’s lungs. 

“They talk about it, they can see it, they can do it — then they get really excited,” Dickson said. 

“Many of these students become easily disenchanted or believe they can’t do math and science. They start to believe they can’t do it, so they don’t even think about it. We make math and science fun. We make problem solving and critical thinking fun.” 

EIH is supported by Kalamazoo College, The Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, WMU, and grants from the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, and the Harold and Grace Upjohn, Dorothy U. Dalton and Irving S. Gilmore foundations. 

Dickson is excited to work with students from elementary school through high school. The success of pathway programs such as EIH is built on providing students with repeated exposure to material and to build long-term relationships and connections. As part of EIH, WMed last summer launched the Health Careers Partnership Program, which provides rising college freshmen with mentorship and advising as they begin their medical studies. Students can earn up to three college credits for the six-week program. 

As a physician, Dickson sees the need to recruit and support students from diverse backgrounds. The medical field is suffering from underrepresentation across the board, she said.

There are not enough doctors who are Latinx, Pacific Islanders, from indigenous groups or African American males and females — not only that, but those groups are underrepresented on medical school faculties as well. 

Her hope in addressing those disparities is found in working with the young students in the EIH programs. 

“You’re planting a seed, watering it, giving it enough sunshine so it will grow and blossom,” she said.