Playing Doctor for a Day: Students Learn the Craft of Health Care
Life is tenuous.
This is never more true than when one spends time in the Intensive Care Unit.
“We try not to be invasive,” Tahoe Forest Hospital ICU nurse Jim Sturtevant told his pupil for the afternoon last Thursday.
Sturtevant went on to explain to John Rose, a senior at Tahoe-Truckee High School, that it’s his job — as well as the rest of the ICU’s staff — to make sure patients are comfortable and treated with dignity during their stay in intensive care.
“We save lives,” Sturtevant continued, but added that there are times when despite all that modern medicine can do, patients die.
During those times, “we make sure they pass away with dignity,” he said.
For one Thursday afternoon, Rose, who hopes to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, was learning more than he ever could from inside the classroom walls.
Rose was shadowing Sturtevant as part of the medical explorers program run collaboratively through the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, Tahoe Forest Hospital and the hospital auxiliary.
For close to 15 years, the program has been bringing high school students into the hospital setting to give them a glimpse into modern medicine and hospital care.
Students taking anatomy and physiology at either Tahoe-Truckee or North Tahoe high schools can volunteer to become a medical explorer.
About 28 students have taken part in the program this semester. About a third of those are from TTHS.
“The program has become very successful since its inception,” said Hanria Egan, the Placer County Community Coordinator at North Tahoe High School. “Some of the kids have had the most incredible experiences — watching babies being delivered, watching families say good-bye to a dying loved one, as well as witnessing all kinds of surgeries. Many of the hospital departments have been so wonderful with the kids.”
Medical explorers have a choice of shadowing staff in the hospital’s more high-profile departments such as the emergency room, intensive care unit, surgery or ob/gyn.
Aside from tagging along with Sturtevant in the ICU, Rose has also shadowed hospital employees in the laboratory and medical imaging departments.
“I chose these departments because I thought they tied in the most with my interests in veterinary medicine,” said Rose, as he learned how to check someone’s vitals on a screen full of green blinking lights, numbers and wavy lines in the corner. “Everyone I’ve worked with has been incredibly helpful and friendly, and the program has been really interesting — a valuable learning experience. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in medicine because it’s a good way to find out if it’s a field you want to pursue or not.”
Pamela Munoz, an exchange student from Chile and senior at TTHS, said she never would have had access to this type of program back home.
“Working in a hospital is really like being in another world,” she said. Munoz was spending her third volunteer session last Thursday in the hospital’s physical therapy department.
“The thing that I admire most about the people I’ve worked with is that even though the staff is under constant pressure, particularly in surgery where people’s lives are at stake, everyone seems to be able to keep a sense of humor.”
Surgical nurse Jae Gustafson, whose been showing students the ropes in the operating room for the past six or seven years, said she’s been impressed with the maturity level and capability of the students she’s come across.
“I haven’t seen anybody freak out during a surgery yet, in fact, I’ve had a lot of students ask if they can stay late to see the end of a procedure because they are so fascinated by it,” he said. “None of my high schoolers have ever gone to ground, while I’ve had nursing students faint on numerous occasions.”
Gustafson said the most important thing about the program is that it allows students to consider the possibility that working in the medical field could be a fun, good career for them to pursue.
“And, if kids are serious about wanting to do this, they can come back and I’ll mentor them the whole way,” she said.
Eagan said that students’ experiences as explorers often have life changing impacts.
“I’ve heard so many touching stories from our students, especially from those who’ve spent time in the Extended Care Center,” Egan said. “Often times, it’s hard to drag the students away. One girl was talking to this little old lady and when it was time to go, she wanted to stay and finish her conversation. It was really amazing.”