New program gives Mount de Sales students close look at medical field

Maria Maiorana watched with wonder as a hospital worker sliced into a placenta inside the pathology lab.

It was one of many teachable moments for Maiorana and other high school students who are part of a new collaboration between Mount de Sales Academy and Navicent Health.

“Anything that’s surgically removed comes to our department,” Jamie O’Hara, a medical technician, explained to Maiorana.

The internship program is called the Student Transition Experience Program. It’s for “highly qualified” high school seniors, who get to spend one day a week exploring career options in the medical field.

A handful of the students have gotten to shadow medical professionals -- from watching lab tests to observing patient care -- throughout the school year. The students also took and passed a class on management principles and received a certificate, which could be applied toward college credit.

Maiorana’s visit to the pathology lab marked her first time there, but she already knows from previous visits that she prefers the “fast-paced” environment of emergency medicine the most. She plans to attend the University of Pittsburgh and, after getting her medical degree, to work in an emergency room some day.

Particulars of medical work may leave some people squeamish (there’s even a sign outside the pathology lab that reads “gross lab” -- a reference to gross anatomy), but Maiorana’s not one of them.

“I don’t think you could gross me out,” she said.

Inside, she stared at the placenta with intrigue. She twiddled her fingers, almost as if she wanted to touch it. She said the graphic sight made her think of the character Hannibal Lecter from the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

O’Hara asked if Maiorana wanted to see an esophagus. She said yes, then asked for more.

“Can I see a leg?” she asked.

“I’ll take you to the morgue later,” O’Hara told her.

You could tell by Maiorana’s enthusiasm that she would put on a white lab coat and start working immediately if she could.

“It’s just been phenomenally successful,” said Dr. Steve Mayfield, chief quality officer for Navicent Health. “I mean, the kids are just loving it.”

The idea for the program came about a year ago when Ninfa Saunders, president and CEO of Navicent Health, and David Held, Mount de Sales’ president, were chatting about how to better engage students. They tossed around ideas on “what would be good for the kids,” Mayfield said, and came up with STEP.

The program benefits both. Mayfield said he’s not aware of any additional costs, since Navicent Health already teaches the certification class to its own employees. And the shadowing portion doesn’t add expense either since the students are just observing workers doing their job.

Another student, Anna Garcia, followed Christa Loyd, a registered nurse and director of patient care services, one recent day as she made her rounds. Garcia, who plans to attend Valdosta State, wants to be a nurse practitioner some day.

At one point they walked into a patient’s room and talked to an elderly man there. A lot of the patients in the ward are close to the end, Garcia learned. Unlike patients in the emergency center, the ones on this floor often become part of the nurses’ everyday lives.

“Up here, we form attachments and bonds with our patients,” Loyd said, which can be hard to deal with when they die. Garcia isn’t sure from her early experiences which setting she prefers, but she is set on being a nurse.

“I just like to care for people,” she said.

The program is “the buzz” among the students, Mayfield said, and it’s already drawing lots of applications from current Mount De Sales juniors for next year.

“I do know that we are already planning on doing it again next year with more students,” he said.

The partnership with Mount De Sales came naturally because the school and health center are neighbors geographically. However, Mayfield said the continued success of the program means there may be other partner schools at some point.

“It’s so refreshing to see young people ambitious with integrity and values and hardworking and energetic and passionate about what’s going on and how to move into the future,” Mayfield said. “I hope that every kid, every student gets a chance to do something like this and follow some type of passion.”

To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.