By Carrie Parker
Eleven Walt Whitman High School students recently spent a day Huntington Hospital, where they maneuvered a surgical robot, practiced setting bones and witnessed a clinical emergency.
“I think we blew them away,” said Huntington Hospital Vice President of Human Resources Lisa Khavkin, who helped facilitate the program, which was held Nov. 30, 2016. “I don’t think they expected to see so much.”
The opportunity arose thanks to the parallel missions of the South Huntington Union Free School District’s STEM program and Northwell Health’s SPARK! Challenge. Both aim to expose students to college and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“The district is very committed to offering kids the opportunity to explore careers in STEM,” said Mari Scardapane, the school district’s STEM coach. The goal is for students to learn reasoning and problem-solving skills, and to prepare them to enter STEM fields, which forecasting shows will encompass well-paying future careers, Scardapane added.
“The end goal is, of course, for students to be picking up skills to have wonderful lives later on,” Scardapane said.
That goal fits with the SPARK! Challenge, a career-awareness initiative that matches Northwell hospitals with local high schools in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island to introduce students to a wide variety of health care careers that require competencies in STEM.
“Health care is changing so rapidly and there has been a focus in the STEM areas to meet that demand,” Khavkin said.
At Huntington Hospital, the Whitman students worked alongside professionals in major areas of the hospital, including infection control, interventional radiology, pathology/laboratory, pharmacy and even the operating room.
Whitman senior Gabrielle Nardelli said she “was able to explore many different areas of medicine and see so many things that I wouldn’t have been able to see without the SPARK! Program.” She continued to list some of her favorite parts of the trip.
“I was able to practice using the da Vinci robotic arm. I witnessed staff respond to an actual clinical emergency, in which they needed blood from the blood bank due to an incoming trauma. I saw an excised section of an intestine as it was being biopsied, and I was able to set a mock fracture in the operating room setting,” Nardelli added.
Khavkin said the program not only “ignited” the Whitman students’ interest, but also gave an added boost to hospital employees.
“As much as the kids were excited, the professionals were ignited, too. It kick starts their passion again, seeing what they do through kids’ eyes.”
Scardapane said South Huntington sent five teams of students to hospitals through SPARK! last year. Each group had a wonderful experience, Scardapane said, but the group she and South Huntington Career Coach Cheryl Irizarry brought to Huntington Hospital had a particularly exciting day.
“The kids could not stop talking about it afterwards,” Scardapane said.
Huntington Hospital Senior HR Specialist Melissa Karrer said the “biggest thing” that happened was when an ambulance came in.
“Students heard codes going across the intercom,” Karrer said. “They got to see what happened to patient from emergency room to operating room and how all of the different fields that they were being taught about come together when there’s a major emergency happening in real time,” Karrer said.
Nardelli said being there during an actual emergency was an experience she wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
“We always see them on television shows, but seeing it in person really opens your eyes and shows how it takes a team to come together and help the patients,” Nardelli said.
Karrer and Khavkin said the students were “completely engaged” and seemed “very ambitious,” with some students expressing interest in a field they had never thought of previously.
For Nardelli and her classmate, Whitman senior Aleyda Garcia, the experience through SPARK! and Huntington Hospital helped solidify their career interests.
“I’ve wanted to become a trauma surgeon for many years,” Nardelli said. “Through the SPARK! program, especially Huntington Hospital’s, it helped me reaffirm that it is exactly what I want to be.”
Garcia, who hopes to become a nurse and pediatrician, also said that the programs STEM has offered have “reassured” her that healthcare is a field she belongs in.
“Being in the operating room, where lives are saved by surgeons who give their all to what they do,” Garcia said, “It made me feel like it’s possible to become a great healthcare professional in the future.”
Scardapane said there are plans for future collaborations between South Huntington and Huntington Hospital. The high schoolers who spent the day at Huntington Hospital will now work in teams to make projects for the health-related careers they saw and present them in a competition against other groups in the entire SPARK! program in April.