Regional initiative aims to foster student interest in health care careers

Sophomores in Dave Hastings' physical education and health class at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in rural Madison took turns taking their blood pressure.

Sophomores in Dave Hastings' physical education and health class at Lac qui Parle Valley High School in rural Madison took turns taking their blood pressure.

They handled surgical retractors and peered at ultrasound pictures of twins.

What really got their attention, though, was the table in the corner, laden with human organs preserved in formalin.

There were exclamations of "Wow!" and "Eew!" as the students examined and touched a uterus, an appendix, a cross-section of brain.

Go ahead and look, urged Wendy Foley. Don't be afraid or grossed-out.


"That's how they learn," she explained. "They learn better when they're able to touch and feel."

Experiences like this are one of the ways the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education Center is working to encourage young people to consider a career in health care.

"Aiming high is part of our goal. We're hoping students will push themselves as far as they can go. We promote all the health care careers," said Foley, a health careers specialist for the Area Health Education Center.

The need is critical for future health care workers, said Kathy Huntley, director of the Area Health Education Center. The center, a partnership with the University of Minnesota, is based at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and covers 27 counties.

As the baby-boom generation grows older, the demand for health care will rise, Huntley said. At the same time, the current health care work force is aging and will need replacement workers.

The situation is especially urgent in rural Minnesota, where many counties already have a shortage of health care professionals.

By exposing young people to health career opportunities, it's hoped that more of them will opt into the field, Huntley said. "Our job is to help generate more avenues, more interest."

"A lot of kids don't have exposure to health care," said Foley. "We're trying to help give one more opportunity for them to see what health care is all about."


Few things grab kids' attention more than hands-on experience.

When Foley visits a school, she brings a carload of props: inhalers, therapy bands, a portable blood pressure machine, a miniature skeleton, an oversize model of human teeth.

"Toys are a big part of my job," she said. "I call it edutainment. I get the kids out of their chairs. Hands on is the best way to reach students. They're so inundated with fast information, and often we only get one shot."

Her trip last week to the Lac qui Parle Valley High School was the second time she's been there. By the time the day ended, she had talked to more than 80 students, mostly 10th-graders.

The students listened intently to Foley's show-and-tell.

"This is one of my favorite toys. This can give a respiratory therapist or a doctor or nurse a good idea of what's happening with your heart and lungs," she said, showing them a pulse oximeter.

She told them to go ahead and handle the surgical retractors. "These all came straight from the surgery department at Rice Hospital, so they're the real thing," she said.

She shared tidbits of information: Minnesota has one of the highest pharmacist shortages in the nation. Nursing is not a girly occupation; growing numbers of men are becoming nurses.


Sophomore Kayla Henneberg gazed at the body parts on the table.

"This is really cool," she said, holding up a knee.

Kayla said she's thinking about a career in health care. Last year she job-shadowed a veterinarian. She's interested in maybe becoming a pediatrician or a nurse.

"I'm glad they did this," she said of Foley's presentation. "I'm learning a lot."

Hastings said he wants to offer the program every year for his health and phy ed students. "It's been great," he said. "It's been one of my high points for the year."

With 300-plus career options in health care, Foley's presentation gives students an overview of the many fields they might choose -- especially among some of the lesser-known specialties, Hastings said.

"Not too many students get to see a pharmacist," he said. "I would recommend this for anybody that's into the health careers."

"The most powerful message I get from the kids is many of them have never even heard of some of these careers before," Foley agreed.


She and Huntley said it's particularly critical to target youngsters early -- grades 8 to 10 are the best time -- so they can prepare themselves.

If career counselors wait until students are juniors or seniors, "they've closed the door on their options by then because they haven't taken the right classes," Huntley said.

Although good grades are important, students who plan to seek a health career also must be well-rounded, Foley said.

"It's aiming high. It's taking the tougher classes to stretch yourself," she said. "I encourage them to volunteer, to spend their time in ways that develop their personality."

Foley also tries to bust some of the myths.

If someone faints at the sight of blood, they should know there are other health careers that don't involve blood, she said.

The extended training for many health careers is expensive but it's not insurmountable, she said. "If you have the passion for it, you will succeed, so don't let that be a barrier."

Working in health care isn't for everyone, she and Huntley said.


"For this, you really have to have the passion," Huntley said. "It is draining work. It is very demanding. They work long hours. It can be very rewarding but it can be very discouraging."

Whenever she talks to students, Foley's hope is that she can spark the passion in at least one person.

"Even if they choose to not go into health care, they still have had exposure to health care careers and to health education," she said. "I know that we make a difference. Our mission is to help for the future and that makes me feel good."

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