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A head start in healthcare
Learning to heal: Top: Emergency Room healthcare apprentice William Nguyen checks a patient’s blood pressure and vital signs. Bottom: RCHS Birth Center healthcare apprentice Shantesica Gillam checks on new mother Dericka Edwards and her son Gilbert Jefferson.

Few people experience moments as intense as being part of a medical team when a patient suffers cardiac arrest or learns to walk after a stroke or gives birth. But for some select Rockdale County seniors, these are part of regular lessons in the Rockdale County Public Schools Healthcare Apprenticeship.

Over 60 students vied for the opportunity to participate in the RCPS Healthcare Apprenticeship funded through a United Way grant, but only eight were selected. The program puts them in a hands-on learning environment working with doctors, nurses and technicians.

"All are very enthusiastic and understand that they would never be exposed to the healthcare industry at this age," said Jeff Rogers, Rockdale Career Academy Work-Based Learning and Youth Apprenticeship Coordinator.

One of the program's rare elements is the students are being paid, albeit minimum wage, for the 25 - 35 hours per month they log in at the Rockdale Medical Center or doctors' offices. Another is the level of exposure to the medical field. "They are observing and sometimes doing, when appropriate, tasks that college interns usually begin doing," said Rogers.

In addition to their regular and AP classes, the apprentices have the foundation of Rockdale Career Academy's Healthcare pathway courses. All said this prior exposure to reading charts and medical terminology and abbreviations served them well in the field.

After witnessing her first patient graduate at Physiotherapy Associates, aspiring physical therapist and Salem High School senior Layne Jackson said it was, "incredible to know we made a difference in her life." She considers it, "good practice interacting with patients and seeing different injuries and scenarios." During her outpatient work she goes over exercises with patients, as well as changing light bulbs and doing laundry.

Heritage High School's Adeola Adeniran, a RMC Physical Therapy apprentice, has much appreciation for the staff who, "have taken me under their wing and try to find cases to interest me." She's been exposed to a wide range of injuries from older stroke patients to high school athletes.

Rockdale County High School's senior class president Shantesica Gilliam helps care for RMC's youngest patients in the Birth Center. She's observed many births and circumcisions and is on hand to feed, change and take babies' vital signs. She's impressed with her co-workers who, "always come in with a positive attitude, and their interactions with the patients is unbelievable." Gilliam's ultimate goal is to become a pediatric oncologist. "I want to do something that will help the next generation, and I want a challenge," she said.

Salem senior William Nguyen's placement in RMC's Emergency Department has confirmed his ambitions. "My true calling is being in a hospital," said the National Honor Society president and future pre-med major. He revels in the atmosphere and his duties, whether it's stocking supplies or assisting with removing sutures. He's seen many cardiac arrest cases and even seen some patients lose their battle.

In the apprentice program, students spend one semester at RMC then a second semester at a doctor's office. Rogers said feedback from the different supervisors has been very positive and complimentary. Besides the actual experience, the students will be able to get valuable reference letters from doctors, nurses and administrators. "They may not realize the networking they have started now may benefit them down the road," said Rogers. "Ultimately, we hope they enter the healthcare industry and come back to Rockdale County."

The grant funding is available for two years. Discussions are already underway on how to continue after the current grant concludes.