Read this article as it originally appeared Sept. 30 in Jersey’s Best.
FACT: According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of applicants to U.S. medical schools has increased by over 35 percent in the last several years, making the road to a profession in the medical industry tougher and more competitive. As a result, students pursuing a career in health care need to capitalize on every opportunity available to hone their skills, enhance their experience and stand out in a crowded field.
Fortunately, one of the most unique medical training opportunities for students resides right in Morris County.
Teens shadowing physicians, interacting with nurses, observing virtual surgeries and learning the ropes everywhere from the Emergency Room and Obstetrics to Radiology, Orthopaedics, the Intensive Care Unit and more are all part of a normal day for students within the Morris County Allied Health Medical Institute, a new “learning partnership” that offers high school juniors and seniors in Morris County unprecedented opportunities to explore and expand their studies within the medical professions and get a head start on a successful career in health care.
In a profession that’s grown increasingly competitive and specialized over time, the innovative Morris County Allied Health Medical Institute — officially launched in September 2018 as a partnership between the Pequannock Township School District, Atlantic Health System’s Chilton Medical Center in Pompton Plains and Morris County Vocational School District — is succeeding in providing secondary school students with a unique birds-eye view of and invaluable leg up on the health care field.
A Rigorous Program
“The high school level is where you want to begin exposing students to the wide range of health care opportunities available to them,” explained Stephanie Schwartz, president of Chilton Medical Center, a community hospital that opened its doors to nearly 40 students from high schools throughout Morris County in the program’s first year, in alignment with the hospital’s commitment to continuous learning.
By all measures, the program’s curriculum is rigorous and demands a great deal of its teen participants. In addition to their other junior and senior year course responsibilities, “students spend three half-days per week at Pequannock Township High School taking courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, emergency and clinical care, and more, and then rotate through various departments at Chilton Medical Center for two half-days each week to apply what they’re learning to real-life clinical experiences,” said Dr. Rosalie Winning, assistant superintendent of schools for the Pequannock Township School District.
“Our students learn medical terminology in the classroom and then carry it with them into the hospital, where they experience real-life situations involving the concepts they were exposed to,” Winning said. “This is where deep learning takes place.”
The program is available to qualified Morris County students through Morris County Vocational School and can earn participating students 18 Rutgers University credits (or can be transferred to other schools).
A Growth Experience
Impressively, the students involved in the program’s inaugural year were a motivated and eager group not easily rattled by the sight of blood.
Among the experiences that stood out most for one student, “I saw two incredible procedures in the operating room,” recalled Montville Township High School student Ferouz Albukhari, 17, “and the doctors who performed the procedures explained them to me.” Among those, “I got to witness a baby being brought into the world, which was incredible,” she said. “Initially, I thought I’d faint or fall over when I saw these procedures, but they were so interesting, and I was surprised by how well I held up.”
For Albukhari, who’s been interested in a career in medicine since elementary school, the program provided an introduction to aspects of the field that weren’t previously on her radar. Among those, “I toured many nursing floors and developed a higher level of respect for nurses based on their incredible organizational and multitasking skills,” she said, adding that the program also provided her with some unexpected life lessons. “Before starting this program, I was very introverted and had to force myself to talk to people or ask questions, but this program helped me learn those skills,” explained Albukhari, who also forged a number of close friendships with fellow participants.
Now set on a career in pharmacy – “medicine is always changing and evolving and it’s amazing to be a part of that,” she said – Albukhari is excited for the opportunity to spend three days a week in the Pharmaceutical Department during her upcoming second year of the Morris County Allied Health Medical Institute: A “residency” year during which program participants get to focus more intensively on the area(s) that most piqued their interest during their broad, junior-year rotations. “I’ll be shadowing clinical pharmacists and then I’m hoping to attend the Rutgers School of Pharmacy’s accelerated six-year program,” she said of her future plans.
Sharon Van Duyne, RN, nurse manager at Chilton’s Intermediate Care Unit, said that she was moved to tears by the way in which all of the students matured over the course of the year.
“When the students first got here, I didn’t know what to expect; they followed us around and were shy, quiet and timid,” Van Duyne recalled of the student teams that shadowed her unit several days a week. “Over the weeks and months, however, you could see them opening up, considering the whole process and asking more meaningful questions; they truly began thinking more like medical professionals than teenagers,” she said. “By the end of the year, all of the students had gotten so much out of the experience and held their heads so high. It was incredible to see how much they’d grown through the process, and I was so proud of them.”
Steven Potter, MD, chair of general surgery and director of the Operating Room at Chilton, agreed. All throughout the many surgical procedures he introduced them to, “the students were very interested, well-behaved and surprisingly comfortable, and I look forward to hosting more students next year,” he said. “This is a great program that gets kids interested early on in what could be a great career for them.”
As the program enters its second year this fall and doubles its student enrollment, participants are excited about the promise it holds for its many stakeholders.
“Chilton Medical Center’s willingness to let our kids in shines a different light on the role that hospitals and schools can play as partners in a learning community,” Winning said. “We’re also delighted to partner with Morris County VoTech, which has a very competitive medical program and was open to providing even more opportunities to students interested in pursuing careers or post-secondary education in the health care industry. The Morris County Allied Health Medical Institute’s unique clinical component enables students to expand their personal and professional skills while learning to collaborate with others and brings to life the material they’re learning in the classroom — all of which take on a different meaning when they happen organically in authentic, real-life situations.”
Based on the many benefits it offers students, medical professionals and educators alike, the Morris County Allied Health Medical Institute has recently garnered positive attention at the state level, drawing several state senators and assemblymen as well as representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education (including Morris County Executive Superintendent Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan and New Jersey Assistant Commissioner of Education Dr. Linda Eno) to the hospital this past May to discuss the program and how it might be replicated elsewhere in the Garden State.
“This is a beneficial program that we hope will continue to grow,” said Chilton’s Schwartz, who believes that the program truly connects the hospital to its community and takes education to the next level. “Having the students on campus has been a rewarding experience and if we can help change one student’s perspective on a career, then we’ve done our part.”
High school senior Albukhari is proud to be one of the program’s pioneers and beneficiaries. “This program requires a lot of work and commitment, but it truly changes your life and has transformed me as a student and as a person,” she said. “For any high school student interested in a career in the health care field, this is a hands-on opportunity and experience you won’t get anywhere else.”