Gwinnett students get early access to local medical school

Gwinnett County students at the Opportunities Academy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee listen to the mechanical lungs inside a mannequin during a simulated emergency room activity. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

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Gwinnett County students at the Opportunities Academy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee listen to the mechanical lungs inside a mannequin during a simulated emergency room activity. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

Program exposes students to careers in medical field

A group of Gwinnett County students got to go straight from their high school classrooms to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine this summer, taking courses on emergency medicine, pathology and pharmacy — even an anatomy lab with some hands-on opportunities.

“I was surprised when they showed us a human brain,” said Christian Parkinson, a rising senior at Lanier High School. “And I got to hold it.”

Parkinson and about 30 other students were participating in the weeklong Opportunities Academy at PCOM. The academy is free to attend and introduces students to different careers in the medical field, offering them a chance to talk with students and teachers at the school.

After two years online because of the pandemic, the program was back in person this year, again giving students the chance for activities in the anatomy lab and other scientific settings using the training resources of the medical school.

The college has a campus in Suwanee; it was founded in Philadelphia. While PCOM’s central program is for students seeking to become doctors of osteopathic medicine, it also grants degrees for biomedical sciences, laboratory sciences, pharmacy, physical therapy and physician assistants.

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Valerie Cadet, a PCOM professor and the adviser of the academy, said her first advice to the students is to keep an open mind.

“I promise you, you’re going to see something that you had no idea about,” she said. Her hope was not just for students to be exposed to a field they may interested in, but also realize if there was something they would not want to do.

Parkinson said his interest in health care stems from his family — his mom is an intensive care unit nurse, his grandmother works in home health care and his aunt is a neurosurgeon. Conversations with his aunt helped him set a goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Combined ShapeCaption
Gwinnett County students at the Opportunities Academy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee listen to the mechanical lungs inside a mannequin during a simulated emergency room activity. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes

Gwinnett County students at the Opportunities Academy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee listen to the mechanical lungs inside a mannequin during a simulated emergency room activity. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes

Combined ShapeCaption
Gwinnett County students at the Opportunities Academy at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee listen to the mechanical lungs inside a mannequin during a simulated emergency room activity. (Josh Reyes / Josh.Reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes

Credit: Josh Reyes

Parkinson found that he was comfortable in the anatomy units and said, “Being here did confirm that I’d like the medical field.”

Sophia Sánchez, a rising junior at Parkview High School, came into the program interested in kinesiology, particularly chiropractic care and physical therapy. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed the activities working with patients experiencing a simulated illness.

“I really enjoyed the problem solving,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong, what’s the next step we can take.”

Sánchez also said the anatomy labs — particularly the dissection of a sheep’s brain — confirmed that surgery wasn’t a likely career path.

The academy operates under PCOM’s office of diversity and community partnerships and focuses its recruiting in Gwinnett County schools. One of the academy’s goals is to expose students in backgrounds underrepresented in the medical field to career possibilities, Cadet said. She said that goes hand in hand with PCOM’s mission to train medical professionals who will work in the region in which they trained.

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Along with the ability to talk to faculty and students at PCOM, the students in the academy had access to equipment that may not be available at their high schools. One unit, they spent with a mannequin in an emergency room who was far from inanimate. It blinked, its mouth moved and inside its torso were mechanical lungs that seemed to wheeze.

The mannequin told the students that it had been playing soccer and suddenly had trouble breathing. They got to listen to its lungs through stethoscopes and worked with a professor through steps that would be taken at a hospital emergency room.

They deduced that the mannequin likely had an asthma attack.