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Phila. Hospital, Middle School Team Exposes Students to Health-Care Careers

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By Jessica Portner

PHILADELPHIA--In a stately brick hospital building situated here in the heart of West Philadelphia, a group of nine 8th graders from the neighboring Turner Middle School don bright yellow lab coats and fan out into different wards of a nearby hospital like residents conducting their morning rounds.

In the CAT-scan room at Misericordia Hospital, 13-year-old Monica Strickland sits in the technician's seat, plugging numbers into a computer that determines the angle of the scan. The patient, an elderly and somewhat agitated man, squirms on the table on the other side of the glass.

They are trying to rule out a blood clot in the brain, explains Amos Curtis, the technician. Seconds later, a silvery-blue radiographic image representing a slice of the patient's brain pops up on the screen.

"They develop that film so fast,'' Monica marvels.

Building Interest in the Field

Monica and her classmates are not moonlighting as medical students, but are part of an unusual public-private program that allows underprivileged students from an inner-city school to earn credit while learning hands-on health-care skills.

Launched in September 1991, the Misericordia program--run jointly by Turner Middle School, the hospital, and the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, or WEPIC, a nonprofit organization--is the only hospital-based health-care program for middle school students in the country, according to the project directors.

The yearlong program, which costs $32,000 annually, is aimed at exposing young people to the health-care professions firsthand in the hope of stirring their interest in the field.

The need for such a matchmaking service is particularly acute here, say program officials. A majority of students who participate in the program live at or below the poverty level, and hospitals and health-related industries, one of the largest employers in the city, can help pull them out of poverty.

There are 160 hospitals in the Philadelphia area, according to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, each of which offers varied job opportunities that students are seldom aware of.

"There are 130 different types of jobs in the hospital setting,'' says JoAnn Mower, the chief executive officer of Misericordia Hospital, which employs over 1,300 people in its 276-bed facility.

"We are giving them exposure to different jobs,'' she adds, "so that there is something else they can do instead of standing on the corner.''

During the 20-week course, the students meet not only doctors and nurses, but also technicians, dietitians, food handlers, and a host of other hospital employees. For one two-hour session each week, students tour the hospital's respiratory-care unit, nursing station, radiology department, and even the emergency room. They are instructed on everything from patient relations to how to take blood pressure.

Freedom To Roam

Demystifying hospital life is often the first task of the hospital staff, says Sister Kathleen Kelly, the director of patient relations at the hospital, which was founded by Roman Catholic nuns in 1915.

"They always ask to see the morgue,'' she says. "But we haven't taken them down [there], because I feel it is a sacred place.''

Though certain hospital areas are off-limits, this select crew has unusual freedom to roam. They are given a tour of each wing except the critical-care ward, and by the end of their stay can expertly navigate the corridors.

But their routine is strictly adhered to. Every Wednesday, after a lunch provided by the hospital staff, the students get a taste of what a day in the life of a hospital worker is like, rotating to a different department each month.

David Rice, a dimpled 13-year-old, went to the physical-therapy department last month to sit in on a class demonstration of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"They were teaching the people in the class what to do if someone's heart stops beating,'' explains David. "I'd like to learn C.P.R. so, just in case someone had heart problems, I'd be able to help.''

For homework assignments, the students are required to keep a journal about their experiences throughout the program, identifying problems and jotting down observations and questions for their teachers. The hospital staff members are taught to check with students about the pacing of the instruction and to try to make the language as simple as possible.

Practicing Prevention

Joseph Nyame, Misericordia's director of respiratory therapy and the head of the program at the hospital, says the journal-keeping often encourages students to reflect on their new knowledge, and helps to change unhealthful behaviors in their own lives. Hospital staff members advise the students to practice preventive medicine and give them the skills to do so.

After a session on nutrition, for example, one student urged his parents to avoid fried foods and salt. And many, "scared and shocked'' after a lecture on lung cancer, urged their parents to stop smoking, says Mr. Nyame.

The students are also called upon to teach what they learn to other students at school. In their language-arts classes at Turner, several students from the program have created presentations about risk factors associated with certain behaviors, and discuss hypertension and AIDS.

One class, during a unit on nutrition, conducted a "hoagie survey''--measuring their classmates' affinity for the Philadelphia sandwich specialty--complete with pie charts and bar graphs.

"They are learning to become change agents,'' says Cory Bowman, the assistant director of the WEPIC program.

The school also lets students show off their skills four times a year on "health-watch night.'' Students make health presentations in the language arts, science, social studies, and math, creating projects on nutritious food, diabetes, and dental and vision screenings.

"We deal with the whole human person,'' says Maria Bogle, the activities director for WEPIC at Turner. "We deal with issues that are related to their own lives.''

Classes Make Visual Imprint

This type of out-of-the-classroom apprenticeship program enriches the learning process, says Mr. Nyame.

"The visual appears to imprint on their minds,'' he says. "Rather than giving them a passage to read on blood pressure, it's like a new toy to them when they actually take someone's blood pressure.''

Misericordia Hospital staff members, as well as graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, which developed the WEPIC program, are available for tutorials if the students want additional instruction.

The hospital program is a coveted one, the students say. Participants are chosen every year based on teachers' recommendations and academic records; students must demonstrate the ability to complete schoolwork taught in their absence.

But in addition to its value as an academic tonic, the program provides students with less tangible side effects that are at least as valuable, officials say.

"They are exposed to poverty, drugs and violence'' in their daily lives, Mr. Nyame points out. He suggests that the program "may be able to increase their enthusiasm'' for positive alternatives.

At least initially, the program appears to be serving its purpose of making health-care careers enticing. Of the 40 Misericordia graduates thus far, 15 have expressed interest in pursuing a career in the health field, says Ms. Bogle.

"I want to be a nurse because I like working with people,'' Marika Fountain, 13, says after listening to a nurse explain the procedure for a mammogram at the hospital-run community center across the street from Misericordia. "And because of how much money they make.''

Job Training Is Next Step

Because employment is a key goal of the program, Ms. Bogle says, the hospital is exploring ways to include a job-training component in the curriculum, whereby older students could return to the hospital for individualized training before graduation.

A tracking mechanism will also be in place soon to monitor the students' educational careers and assess the dropout and employment rates.

Ira Hackavey, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped conceptualize the program, thinks it can be a boon to any community.

"The students are learning through service and through putting skills into practice,'' he says. "They are active in solving the problems of the community.''

Besides, they seem to enjoy it.

"I like it all--you ain't going to get no experience anywhere like this,'' says Sheree Jenkins, 13, who spent her session in the dietary department wrapping food on trays and sterilizing utensils.

"If you don't eat the right foods you'll get sick,'' she says.

And because of the success of the program, the hospital is considering expanding it to a neighboring Catholic elementary school.

"[The students] have to know that there is an opportunity for them out there,'' says Ms. Bogle. "We have to let [them] know that anything is possible if you work for it.''

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