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From the classroom to real life: Career event gives students hands-on lesson at Rice Hospital

Briana Sanchez/ Tribune Steven Vanderwerf, pathologist, shows Willmar Senior High students what the inside of the refrigerator at the morgue looks like Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital.1 / 7
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Willmar Senior High students look at the vision tower that is attached to the Da Vinci Xi surgical system Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. Another student was performing a demonstration at the surgeon council so that they could see what he was doing on the vision tower. The Da Vinci Xi surgical system is a robot controlled by a surgeon that can be used during surgery.2 / 7
Briana Sanchez/ Tribune Jessica Skindelien asks a question during a tour of the morgue Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. Skindelien was part of the group of students who participated in Health Career Day.3 / 7
Briana Sanchez/ Tribune General surgeon Dr. Tom Lange shows a video of a magnetic resonance imaging machine to Willmar Senior High students Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. Lange showed a video demonstrating how powerful the magnetism of an MRI is.4 / 7
Briana Sanchez/ Tribune Kayla Norling looks at the patient cart Da Vinci Xi surgical system Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. Norling was part of the group of students who participated in Health Career Day.5 / 7
Briana Sanchez/ Tribune Willmar Sneior High students look at the patient cart Da Vinci Xi surgical system with Rick Brosseau, Da Vinci sales representative, Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. The Da Vinci Xi surgical system is a robot controlled by a surgeon that can be used during surgery.6 / 7
Briana Sanchez/ Tribune Ultra sound technician Josh Swenson gives Abdisalan Abdullahi, sophomore at Willmar Senior High, an ultra sound on his neck to check his thyroid glandes Thursday at Rice Memorial Hospital. Swenson shows the students the different ways an ultra sound machine can be used.7 / 7

WILLMAR—The morgue, tucked away on the lower level of Rice Memorial Hospital, is rarely seen by the public. But on Thursday the doors were opened to local high school students to give them a glimpse of one of the many career possibilities in health care.

Dr. Steve Vanderwerf, a pathologist with Minnesota Pathologists Chartered, described his work and explained when an autopsy might be performed.

His teenaged audience had plenty of questions. Were there any bodies in storage? How was the morgue kept clean of infectious agents?

Vanderwerf rolled out one of the long metal trays where bodies are kept. The morgue was empty that day, he told the students.

As for infection control, it takes "lots and lots of bleach," he said, displaying the Kevlar gloves he uses to protect himself from accidental nicks and cuts during an autopsy.

About 60 students from four area high schools participated in the day-long health careers event, organized by Rice Hospital to expose them to career opportunities and offer hands-on experiences in everything from ultrasound to robotic-assisted surgery.

The idea grew out of an open house last year for the hospital's robotic-assisted surgery program. That event was a hit with the public and also turned out to be a big draw for high school students.

Dr. Thomas Lange, one of the surgeons at Rice Hospital, said he saw an opportunity for the hospital to connect more closely with students, especially to promote the variety of careers available locally.

"I want them to be interested and maybe think about all these different careers," he said. "I want people to know what Rice has available."

Led by Lange, a group of hospital staff put together an event designed to grab students' interest and get them engaged.

By mid-morning, high schoolers from Willmar, New London-Spicer, MACCRAY and Central Minnesota Christian School of Prinsburg were enthusiastically involved in ultrasound and robotic surgery demonstrations and tours of the hospital morgue and one of the operating rooms.

Addie Erickson sat at the console of the robotic-assisted surgery demonstration model, set up in the hospital's garden court, and tried to manipulate a rubber band with the delicate instrumentation.

"It was really cool," she said afterward. "It was more difficult than I thought it would be but not once I got the hang of it."

"Awesome. Loved it," was the reaction of Jonah Fabrizius, a Willmar senior who wants to become a surgeon.

Erickson, a senior at Willmar High School, said she plans to major in biology and become a geneticist.

She liked the connection between what she's learning in the science classroom and how the basic principles are applied at the hospital, such as with CT, PET-CT and MRI imaging technologies. "It was really exciting learning the difference between them," she said.

One of the goals of the event was to help students see this connection, Lange said. "I want them to see that there's a reason for some of what they're learning in school," he said.

The organizers kept it real, starting the day with a case study of a real-life patient, a 73-year-old who arrived in the emergency room with rectal bleeding, was diagnosed with colon cancer and treated successfully with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

The case is an example of the many people and diverse types of training needed to care for patients throughout the hospital, Lange told the students.

"It's a team approach and you can't do it without everybody involved," he said.

Although many health care careers require advanced training, this doesn't necessarily mean a college degree, he said. And jobs in healthcare are in demand, he noted. "They pay well. You can go anywhere in the country."

Pat Breen, a microbiology teacher at Willmar High School, said that when his students were told a few weeks ago about the upcoming field trip to Rice Hospital, "they were absolutely excited for this day."

They've recently been learning in the classroom about infections acquired at healthcare facilities, he said. "I really wanted them to find out what the hospital does to limit that."

It's also rewarding for students to hear about the career opportunities available close to home, Breen said. "They're finding out the dimensions of learning and opportunities. I think a lot of them are finding Willmar isn't a place they have to go away from."

It's hoped that Rice Hospital can make this an annual event, said Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer.

The hospital staff was supportive and eager to participate, she said. "They are opening the doors and giving their time. They think this is important. It's doing what our mission is as a hospital. It's so rewarding to see these kids just light up."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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