Dr. Johnny JohnsonTo launch its Health Sciences career concentration, the Institute of Science & Technology invited students to attend the Health Sciences Symposium on Friday, November 18, 2011. Students from the feeder elementary schools, Prairie Middle School, and Overland High School were encouraged to apply, and a group of about 70 students was chosen. The application process helped to ensure that the audience had a genuine interest in pursuing a health science career.

Dr. Johnny Johnson, the emcee of the event and an OB/GYN, looked around and ascertained that he had delivered many of the students in the room. In fact, he has delivered more than 15,000 children into this world. He imparted the wisdom that students need to be strong in math and science so they can learn and develop new technologies of the medical field.

Mary Vidmar

Mary Vidmar, a bilingual nurse manager from Craig Hospital, spoke of her work with spinal cord and brain injury patients. Born and raised in Laredo, TX, Vidmar learned to speak Spanish as she watched her mother care for patients in this border town. She stressed the importance of speaking multiple languages in a hospital as she related a story of a Hispanic male patient. This man described the feeling of bugs crawling on his skin, but the translator mistook this as actually seeing the bugs. He was sent to the Psychiatric Ward by mistake.

Vidmar shared some of the technological advances that helped her patients, including a walking aid called eLegs. With the assistance of eLegs, a patient who would normally maneuver by wheelchair can stand upright and even walk. Vidmar appealed to the students that the health sciences needed their help in the future to develop better solutions to problems. Could they create a pacemaker that would allow the patient to get an MRI without burning him? Could they develop an intracatheter that didn't need a new battery every five years and could save the patient from continual surgeries? And could they find a way to install both a dichromatic pacer and a pacemaker, so that patients wouldn't have to choose one treatment or the other. These items save lives, but they need better design. "We need your brain power to come up with better ideas," Vidmar told them.

Teamwork is of utmost importance in a nursing career. She reminded them that "you don't always get to pick your team," but it's necessary to work together to solve problems and help patients. "Are you a team of experts?" she asked them, "or an expert team?"

Finally, Vidmar encouraged all students that they could find a good fit in the health sciences. "You don't have to just be good at math and science," she told them. There is a need for good writers and teachers. And financial difficulties should not stand in the way of their goals. Some programs have scholarships that will fund an education for students who agree to work for them after graduation. Students need to make the right choices, and put the work behind it.

David Birkle

David Birkle, a rehabilitation engineer from Craig Hospital, shared his journey with a captive audience. As a child, he enjoyed working on bikes and cars. By the time he was 16, he had rebuilt an MG Midget. He worked on sports cars and race cars and dreamed of being a Formula 1 Racing Driver. He worked construction for several years and was glad he had this experience as part of the "toolkit" for his current job.

After a car accident left him with a broken back, he realized his life would be different in a wheel chair. But he asked himself, "What do I like doing?" and he found a way to make his dreams happen. He earned an engineering degree and later volunteered at Craig Hospital. He told the students that it took him 15 years to get the job he wanted, but he was finally doing what he liked…"fixing stuff."

Birkle works with paraplegic and quadriplegic patients and described his job as "making the patient as independent as possible." He shared a heart-warming story of a man who had lost the use of his arms and his legs. All the man wanted was to play cards with his friends, drink whiskey and smoke a cigar. Birkle created a device that could hold the cards and fashioned a long straw for the whiskey. The cigar was attached to a clip, and when the man took a puff on the cigar, a grin lit up his face. This was all the satisfaction that Birkle needed.

Rehabilitation engineers develop objects that assist patients in their daily lives. Birkle believes that "if a part can't do three things, it's not doing enough." He demonstrated a lapdesk that also served as a food tray and a book holder with just a few modifications.

Items like the Kindle and voice recognition software have replaced the need for his book tray or pen holder, but with his engineering degree, he is able to continue designing and developing new devices. A few years back, he designed the hand controls in Saturn vehicles.

Birkle imparted this wisdom to the students: it is necessary to be a critical thinker, to take an idea and follow it through, and to keep learning throughout life.

Arletta Cockrell

Arletta Cockrell, a nurse practitioner from Children's Hospital, joked with Dr. Johnny Johnson about the importance of nurses over doctors. It was a friendly rivalry and served to show the students how everyone in health care is an integral part of helping patients.

Cockrell broke down the different types of nursing degrees so that students could see the number of years they would spend in college versus the amount of money they could earn. She advised them to determine the setting in which they wanted to work and then choose the degree needed to get there. No matter which degree students were seeking (CNA, LPN, ADN, or BSN), they would be wise to choose a school that has an accredited program.

Students asked how they should prepare now to work towards a career in nursing. She advised them to look at a college's admission requirements and work towards that. Schools vary in requirements for ACT scores, grades, community service and extracurricular activities, so it's important to know what will be needed for admission.

Cockrell shared that her happiest moments in her job happen everyday because she truly loves her job. She loves taking care of kids and making a difference in their lives. "What I do is special everyday," she told the audience, "because I work with kids."

For aspiring nurses, both male and female, Cockrell encouraged that "it's never too early to think about what you want to do." There are flight nurses that assist patients during helicopter transport, traveling nurses who relocate to different locations as needed, and even nurses in the military. No matter what students aspire to become, they should set goals and keep trying to achieve them.

Dr. Tariq Walker

Dr. Tariq Walker, a member of the University of Colorado faculty, offered great advice for his audience. He told the story of his beginnings in the medical field and encouraged everyone to go after what they desire. He commented on the timeless question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and remarked that the world is changing, so it's important to have multiple career options.

Walker began his journey toward becoming a doctor as early as middle school, when he applied for a health science program at the Children's Hospital Medical Center. Even though the program was only for high-school students, his determination earned him acceptance. "I applied anyway," he said. It was there where he had the opportunity to shadow pediatricians and learn first-hand about the life of a doctor. After four summers, he had glowing recommendation letters that would help him gain admission to medical school.

He encouraged students to create positive relationships with their teachers, because these are the people that write their college recommendation letters and can serve as their mentors.

"Early exposure helps us figure out what we like," Walker said. Students should have a variety of experiences to help determine what they may one day like to do. While other speakers stressed the importance of teamwork, Walker assured them that there is a place in medicine for those who prefer to work alone, too. Pharmacists, lab researchers, pathologists, and radiologists work on their own, while EMT's, surgeons, orthodontists, and pediatricians work with a team.

In closing, Walker shared his passion for helping patients with infectious diseases, such as HIV, and eliminating health care disparities so that everyone who needs treatment can get it.

The Health Sciences Symposium was a successful launch of the Health Sciences program at the IST and an inspiration to all who attended.

Prairie StudentsOverland Students