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A Summer Camp For Career Exploration

July 25, 2002

Is 12 years old too young to be exploring a possible life career? Not if the journey involves a visit to "Easy Street."

That's just one of the experiences offered during Nursing Exploration Camp, a three week endeavor to expose middle school students to the profession of nursing. Last week 14 health care neophytes spent an hour on that street and came away with a new appreciation of what we all take for granted.

A joint undertaking by Inova Health System, the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, and Fairfax County, Frost and Glasgow middle schools, the "Camp" is designed to stimulate an interest in the nursing profession and expose the participants to the myriad facets of health care.

"This program is one way to get students interested in nursing. There is a huge shortage nationwide and it is critically impacting the health care system," said Ellen Swartwout, RN, Senior Director of Professional Practice and Camp Coordinator, Inova Health System.

"Our other goal is to improve the image of nursing. We will be undertaking a research program on the nursing profession as a result of this program," she stated.

NOW IN ITS SECOND YEAR, Nursing Exploration Camp is offered in three, one week segments with participants held to a maximum of 15 per class. "This year we actually had to wait list interested students," said Kathleen Thomas, Media Relation Manager, Inova Health System.

Last Thursday, 2002's first class arrived at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital just after 9 a.m. and immediately took a walk on "Easy Street," one of the most innovative learning centers in the health care network. It is designed to teach patients who have suffered stroke, brain and spinal injuries, and head traumas how to perform the everyday challenges of life.

Housed within the physical therapy section of the hospital, "Easy Street," as the sign overhead announces, is a special therapy area. It is comprised of a mock ATM, mail box, Metro bus next to a simulated sidewalk with a curb cut for wheel chair access, mock automobile and gas pump, and grocery store, with checkout line, vegetable/fruit bins, and can goods on its shelves.

Each of these situations is designed to aid the patient in conquering the challenges they present. There are also stations offering vision and coordination testing, driving comprehension tests, sight/motor control evaluation, and speech therapy.

One of the primary challenges for the students was to maneuver a wheelchair up to the Metro Bus door by navigating the curb cut and incline. "This is really hard," exclaimed Teka Johnson from Stafford, as she rolled backward down the incline.

ACCOMPANYING THE students throughout their week are several registered nurses, in addition to Swartwout, and a teacher from Frost Middle School, Hillary Bebko.

"I have worked with students in all types of training programs but this is one of the most exciting. This makes me consider going back to nursing school after I retire as a teacher," Bebko said.

A 24-year teacher of French and Spanish, Bebko admits, "I knew nothing about nursing but they wanted a teacher's perspective on the program. I've never even been a patient in a hospital."

But she emphasized, "I have such a profound respect for the nursing profession. This has made me very aware of the whole hospital experience. And, it's a perfect time in the lives of the students. Twelve to 14 years of age is a great exploration period."

In addition to the "Easy Street" challenges there was also the Para Bike. This three wheel, low slung cycle is designed to aid spinal cord injury patients develop trunk control, balance, and upper body strength, according to Amy Beth Cook, Certified Therapeutic/ Recreation Specialist, Inova Health Systems.

"It is particularly helpful in aiding stroke victims to develop coordination. The only way to turn the bike is by leaning the entire body to the right or left," Cook explained. As each student took their turn on the bike that movement proved to be their nemesis as one after another became acquainted with the corridor wall.

FROM "EASY STREET" the group moved to the Hyperbaric Unit. Only one of three such units in the Washington/Baltimore region, and the only one in Northern Virginia, it is designed to treat patients suffering from radiation exposure, decompression, and those with wounds that are not healing properly, according to Joan Wirsing, RN, who oversees the dual units at Mount Vernon Hospital.

Each unit is comprised of a large, glass topped, cylinder which the patients lays in while they are exposed to pure oxygen pumped in under pressure. "The unit is powered by oxygen not electricity. Therefore, if there is a power failure while someone is in the unit they are not at risk," Wirsing explained.

"It increases the body's oxygen and, therefore, the healing process. The other units in the area are at the University of Maryland and George Washington Hospital in the District," she said.

Even though the patient is encased within the cylinder they can see through the glass lid. There is a television set in view of each unit to help the time pass for the occupant.

"The longest treatment is up to five hours in the unit," Wirsing said. "That is for decompression patients. We have scuba divers who have no effects of the bends until they get on a plane and experience the pressure change. It's also very helpful for patients that have undergone heavy radiation treatment."

Under normal procedures, a patient takes 20 treatments in the unit of approximately one hour each, according to Wirsing. The only side effect is some ear popping upon exiting "much like some people experience when flying," she noted.

Finally, the students received a course in disease control, both within and without the confines of a hospital. They actually could see germs on their hands and were instructed how to reduce exposure to airborne infections.

"Each patient is tested for infectious disease when they enter a hospital. If its not identified at that time and they develop it during their stay, we know it's hospital related," explained Linda Brown, Infection Control Practitioner and Epidemiology Nurse.

SHE THEN PROCEEDED to demonstrate how germs are transmitted. "Flu, TB, measles, chickenpox, and others are all transmitted through the air," she stated. "When you cough, don't cover your mouth with your hand use the fold of your arm. Most people don't wash their hands after blocking a cough. Then they transfer the germs onto what ever they touch."

Brown sprayed the student's hands with "Glow Germ," a synthetic germ component, and had them attempt to wash it off. After washing, each placed their hands under a black light and were amazed to see how many of the simulated germs still existed.

The Mount Vernon Hospital experience was the second of the week. On Tuesday they visited Inova Alexandria Hospital where they heard from nurses who care for patients recovering from surgery or suffering from respiratory, neurological or other ailments.

The Alexandria visit exposed them to nurses assigned to the Same Day Surgery Center, operating room, post anesthesia unit, cardiovascular, and interventional radiology operations. They learned how doctors and nurses use ultrasound, x-ray, and other technologies to perform procedures with the arteries and veins of patients.

In the maternity area, the students talked with nurses who specialize in the delivery and care of new babies and their moms.

A SPECIAL TREAT was a chance to check out the Inova AirCare helicopter up close by being able to board and talk with the nurses of the "airborne intensive care unit."

During the five day schedule, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the students spend time at each Inova Health System hospital and George Mason University. The total cost is $150 per student, which covers, transportation, lunch, snacks, and educational materials.

"We do get some financial aid to finance the expenses for students who just can't afford the cost," Swartwout said. "And, many Inova employees volunteer their free time to participate and serve as group leaders."

This year's program was expanded to three weeks with a total enrollment of 39 students from various middle schools. Program weeks are July 8, 22, and 29. Inova Health System would like to see it expand to school districts throughout Northern Virginia, according to Swartwout.

"After each week we poll the students to see if they would consider nursing as a career. Up to 90 percent have said 'yes,'" Swartwout said.

This was borne out by Sara Cleer from Kilmer Middle School in Vienna. "I really like nursing. It seems to be more personal than being a doctor. You get to really help people everyday," she said. "And, this is a great program."