Teenagers plan early for a career in the medical field

Natalie Cerf

One thing that can easily separate successful students from ones that lag behind is initiative and a desire to succeed. No matter how many resources students are given throughout their high school career, their experience is going to be what they make of it. Students can choose to do the bare minimum and just coast through, or they can choose to walk the extra mile, to get ahead, to learn, to expand their knowledge. Over half of Redwood students fall into the latter category, having self-reported that they have done volunteer work or internships to prepare for a career that they are interested in pursuing, according to a recent Bark survey.

Senior Katarina Cook is one of these students. Around the fifth grade, she said she realized her interest in medicine when she dislocated her shoulder. Additionally, her mother had melanoma and being around her while she dealt with the illness also prompted Cook’s interest in the field. She decided to take action, emailing a doctor of hers, Dr. Mohammad Diab, and soon after obtained an internship position with him at UCSF Mission Bay.

Another senior, Avrelle Harrington, took similar initiative after recognizing her own interest in the medical field in seventh grade. She waited until she was 16 years old, the required minimum age for volunteering at Marin General Hospital, and then signed up to volunteer there.

Marin General Hospital volunteer Avrelle Harrington's badge ID card.
Marin General Hospital volunteer Avrelle Harrington’s badge ID card.

Harrington said she is using her volunteer work as a sneak peek into being a medical professional. She fully understands just how much time and effort is given into studying for a career in medicine.

“My entire high school career is kind of based on medicine. It’s everything I’ve kind of done,” Harrington said. “I want to make sure it’s something that I really want to do because obviously there is so much hard work that has to go into that, you don’t stop school until you’re, like, 40-something and that’s when you start your life.”

Senior Brendon Wright decided to investigate his interest in medicine by also signing up to volunteer at Marin General Hospital.

Wright said he sets aside sections of his day to be at the hospital, and does not view his time wasted in any way.

“I don’t really need volunteer hours or anything, but it’s an awesome way to be introduced to the hospital work environment if that’s something I may want to do later on in life,” Wright said.

Cook attested to the intensity of the preparation for this field, but stated that her internship has confirmed that it is worth it.

“I want to commit myself to four years of medical school and countless years of being an intern, being a resident and not actually being at my full potential for another decade and half or so,” Cook said. “I think I just wanted to confirm to myself that this is definitely what I want to do and I was able to achieve that by doing this.”

Besides the long-term commitment, making time in the busy schedule of a high school student can be just as difficult. Cook needs to set aside full days to be able to completely understand what an entire day in the life of Dr. Diab is like.

Cook spends her time shadowing Dr. Diab, scrubbing in on surgeries and observing consultations with patients. Over summer, when she wasn’t busy with this work, Cook went to Tanzania to examine public health in a developing country. There, she was able to compare and contrast the dramatically different healthcare systems that are in place in the United States versus the health care in Tanzania.

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Senior Kat Cook (right) in Tanzania to examine public health in the developing country

“It’s really the extremes of healthcare there and it really showed to me the need of public health throughout the world, especially in Tanzania and other developing nations,” Cook said.

Harrington also went on an abroad trip to further study medicine. This summer, she went to Oxford Scholastica Academy in the Young Doctors Program in London..

Harrington said she was granted the opportunity to explore medicine in a more hands-on way than she could ever do at the hospital.

“At that program, you have your own teacher who just graduated med school from Oxford and they teach you the basic human anatomy,” Harrington said. “You do dissections, you do simulations, you do emergency things. So we have an actor come in and pretend to have an issue and then we’re first responders.”

Getting experience in a hospital environment can guide young students towards what may specifically interest them in medicine, however, neither Cook, Wright nor Harrington are sure of what definitive field they want to pursue. Cook shows interest in public health, while Harrington is drawn to psychology, which she sees as a middle ground between two of her interests: journalism and medicine. Wright is considering becoming a surgeon.

“It’s a great introduction into the medical workforce and seeing the different jobs because, besides doctors, there are so many different things that you can be,” Wright said. “You can be an ER tag, you can be a nurse, there’s charge nurses, there’s other technicians that work in the labs. There are so many other things besides being a doctor that you can participate in healthcare.”

During her volunteer work, Harrington also has the opportunity to experience doctor-patient relationships. Harrington said she has become accustomed to being extremely sensitive around the hospital, as she often encounters grieving family members of inpatients.

“We have people that will stop by and just release to you. They are venting. They are sobbing because somebody they love is in the hospital. You just have to be there,” Harrington said.

Working in the area of the hospital that deals with this type of support can be a blessing in disguise, Harrington said. She mentioned that at first having a stranger crying on her shoulder for support is scary, but soon it becomes a comforting feeling.

“You suddenly have to be there for complete strangers. You just get comfortable with it. At first it’s crazy and you are like ‘Why am I doing this?’ because it’s scary. But then it gets okay, and you are like ‘I can do this,’” Harrington said. “It’s nice to be there for people.”

Unlike Harrington’s role, positions like the ones of Cook and Wright do not offer the same opportunities for them to make bonds. Wright, who spends his time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), is not able to form bonds with the patients because they are for the most part intubated or on heavy medication drugged up from a medical procedure.

Similarly, Cook only sees patients for consultations or surgery, making all of their interactions confidential.

“I can’t disclose patients’ names if I discuss them. If I knew a patient, I couldn’t go in and view the consultation. So, forming bonds is not realistic in this case,” Cook said.

Despite their different positions, all of them value the work they are currently doing, which will serve them well in their futures as medical personnel, according to the students.  

“[Volunteering] made me pursue my interest even more and it made me want to start really considering [medicine] as a path for me, especially as I’m graduating and heading to college,” Harrington said.