Weighing the Options

High school students, green notecards taped to their backs, flipped through PowerPoint print-outs as they rattled off a series of questions: “Do I require an advanced degree?” “Do I work on humans?” “I have to be a pharmacist, right?”

The group, participants in the inaugural DC Healthcare Exploration for Aspiring Leaders (DC HEAL) pipeline program, was about two hours into the daylong event designed to showcase the broad array of opportunities available in health care. As part of a collaboration between the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and members of the SMHS Physician Assistant (PA) program, DC HEAL grew out of a sister program, DC Health and Academic Prep Program (DC HAPP), also sponsored by ODI. 

“We helped with recruitment for [DC HAPP], and we realized that there are actually a lot more students interested in going into the medical field than there are positions in that program,” explained Samara Rahman, a second-year PA student. “We wanted to create a day for some of the students who are not going to be attending the other program to come in and still learn about the medical field.”

Rahman and colleagues from the PA Class of 2019 were deeply involved in the planning, coordinating, and hosting of the event.

Members of the inaugural DC HEAL cohort, who come from D.C. area schools, all expressed an interest in health care, and their immersion started with an explanation of the myriad career options available, from phlebotomist to optometrist.

“When you just start working in the hospital, you realize how many different professions you really have to work with in order to incorporate a final plan for the patient,” said Tonya Miller-Thomas, a second-year PA student. “If there’s a patient with a stroke, we’ll manage their medications, but then we also have to get [physical therapy] involved, and then you also have to get speech-pathology involved, and psychiatry, maybe, and it’s so many different components and professions that you’d never think of in the moment.”

Jameelah Jenkins-DuVall, a recent graduate of Washington Latin Public Charter School who plans to be an OB/GYN, saw the various career options as eye-opening. “[DC HEAL] is very informative, especially if you don’t know much about things outside of what you want to do,” she said. “It definitely opens your eyes to ‘I could do that.’ It just opens up the possibilities.”

As Jenkins-DuVall and her classmates correctly deduced the profession spelled out on their notecard, the PA students in charge of the program handed out reflex hammers to the first three to guess correctly — and the prizes didn’t stop there. Once the game was complete, the students split into small groups for a lesson on microbiology and how it applies to health. The SMHS PA presenters guided the students through an exploration of the mechanisms of antibiotics and the differences between bacteria and human cells, with candy as the reward for participation. The day wrapped up with a practice sterile scrub-in, where participants learned the ins-and-outs of washing their hands and properly donning a surgical gown, and a meeting with mentors.

“[As part of the program, they] get someone who can keep in touch with them,” said Rahman. “If they have any questions, they can ask the mentors, who can help point them in the right direction.”

Rahman, for example, never thought of becoming a PA until after she’d earned her bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t know what a PA was until after I graduated college, and then I was going to go to medical school,” she recalled. “But when I thought about it, what a PA was, I changed my mind. So, just being able to be aware of all these different things you can [do] — you don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse, there are a lot of options out there.”

Aseeyah Walker, a junior at Washington Latin Public Charter School, plans to be a PA, and she saw DC HEAL as the chance to get her start. 

“I think the opportunity to gain exposure and more information about different fields [is important],” she said, adding that she’d like to go into dermatology. “Given a lot of high school students don’t know about different opportunities for them, this [program] is especially good.”