Outstanding high schoolers get a taste of medicine at Providence

May 1, 2011

High school students eager to learn whether a career in medical science suits them dive into medicine, ethics and ministry as part of the Medical Focus Program at Providence High School in Burbank, Calif. The private Catholic school is next door to its sister institution, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, and students get behind the scenes exposure to the hospital's inner workings.

"They see every nook and cranny of this hospital," said Sr. Colleen Settles, OP, chief mission integration officer for Providence Health & Services, California. "What we wanted was for our Providence family to reach out to the young of our community. The students see the excellence that goes into what we do. And the program, in turn, requires excellence of them."

Providence High School and Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center joined forces in 1989 to create the Medical Focus Program. Last year, the Catholic high school officially became part of Providence Heath & Services. The school, which has 375 students, and the hospital were founded by the Sisters of Providence.

Students from the Medical Focus Program mug for the camera during an earthquake disaster drill at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.


The Medical Focus Program typically accepts about 30 freshmen each year; 17 medical focus seniors will graduate June 4. Students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, complete internships at hospitals and private practices and volunteer up to 120 hours at Saint Joseph or other organizations like the American Red Cross, the AIDS Walk, the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association. Dr. Arjan Harjani, the school's science department chair and longtime director of the Medical Focus Progam, acknowledges the program is demanding.

On the website Ratemyteachers.com, one student recently wrote of Harjani, "He'll be on your case if you aren't doing well. Strict, but for a good purpose. Will push students to their limits. Must be organized and well prepared for his class or you will lag..."

"Being in Medical is the best decision you will ever make if you're willing to put in the work," wrote another student.

"They are challenged," said Harjani. "My feeling is that they are getting a handle on life and learning to understand what is important to their growth and how to be responsible citizens. I tell them their freshman year they are not going to regret anything. It doesn't matter if they became artists or actors."

Harjani calls the hospital an important partner. The hospital invites students for special events such as the recent visit by a medical supplier's high-tech classroom in a big rig. Juniors and seniors got to manipulate laparoscopic tools used in minimally invasive surgeries.

At the hospital, they learned about colonoscopies and observed as pathologists cultured samples. Student John Lee called that experience life altering.

"We learned how they take a sample from patients, cultivate it and watch it grow," said Lee. "It was so interesting; I went back and interviewed a microbiologist. I never thought I could grow up to be a microbiologist, but now I think that's what I want to major in."

If the shoe fits
Saint Joseph is not a teaching hospital; and, for safety reasons, students have limited interaction with patients. Still, students count access to hospital professionals as one of the program's chief draws. Student Kimberly Pecache said her experience with nurses helped her realize nursing wasn't the right fit for her.

"I came here to help me decide what I wanted to do with my life," said Pecache. "The trips to the hospital and the other facilities and my volunteer hours have helped me find myself and realize what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. I think what nurses do is amazing; but now I'm working with a dentist, and I think that's what I want to be."

Students also visit and volunteer at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, Shriners Hospital, USC University Hospital, LA County + USC Medical Center, Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center, Kaiser Permanente, Huntington Memorial Hospital, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"We've seen all sorts of things. We went to see cadavers and held organs," said Pecache. "That really helped for the anatomy final."

Most would-be physicians don't have these experiences until college. Sr. Settles said the exposure and enrichment opens students' eyes to possibilities.

"It starts them out on a path. We know how difficult it is to get into premed or a nursing program. Coming from a medical focus program gives them a big head start."

Medical focus students take all of the other general education classes — history, English, math — their classmates do. They participate in extracurricular activities and go out on the weekends. What distinguishes them is their drive and organizational skills.

"I still feel like I'm part of my high school," said Therese Vesagas, who aspires to be a physician and serves on the school's student body. "That's what I love about our school — the family aspect."

"I try not to make it a back-breaking business," Harjani said of the Medical Focus Program. "But it's not for everyone."

Many graduates now work in the medical field, some even have found jobs at Saint Joseph. Others have pursued careers outside of medicine. That's okay by Harjani.

Critical thinkers
"A student came back who was a lawyer, and he talked about how the medical program prepared him for a career in law — the critical thinking, the skills of communication, leadership, working as a team, giving back to the community, learning to understand the needs of others and so on," said Harjani. "I can't give it a value."

Sr. Settles adds that each of these students will, one day, be a consumer of health care. The curriculum prepares graduates to take responsibility for their own health and understand medical issues and ethics. Current students have studied in their ethics class genetically modified foods, in vitro fertilization and treatment of the elderly and mentally ill.

"I love their conversations and struggles with some of the questions about some of the ethical issues society faces," said Sr. Settles. "Looking at issues from all different angles will help them in any field they decide to go it."

Sr. Settles said the staff at Saint Joseph are energized by the opportunity to teach the next generation of providers and patients.

"They come so prepared and ask great questions," Sr. Settles said of the students who attend lectures and demonstrations. Hospital staff "know what these kids have to do to get into this program and to stay into it. It's actually a source of pride when someone on staff is asked to give a presentation. Sometimes we are so immersed in what we do that we lose sight of our role. But to see these young people so excited about your work, it makes you reinvest in what you're doing."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.