The Baltimore Sun: Camp Preps Girls for Health Careers

Ashley Jones was set on becoming a professional soccer player, but by the end of a summer health camp for teens, she was chasing a career in nursing. Jones, now 21, participated in the first annual Camp ECHO (Exploring Careers in Healthcare Organization). The five-day summer immersion program is now in its sixth year at Saint Agnes Hospital. It exposes Maryland high schoolers to the many sides of the health-care profession.


Ashley Jones was set on becoming a professional soccer player, but by the end of a summer health camp for teens, she was chasing a career in nursing. Jones, now 21, participated in the first annual Camp ECHO (Exploring Careers in Healthcare Organization), a five-day summer immersion program now in its sixth year at Saint Agnes Hospital that exposes Maryland high school students to the many sides of the health care profession.

“I’d always thought about being a nurse, helping people and giving back to the community,” said Jones, who is one year shy of earning her bachelor’s degree in Community Health from Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y.. She is interning this summer in Saint Agnes’ administrative department and helping out with the camp this year. “This program sealed it for me.”

“In our initial planning stages there was a contest in the nursing department to name the camp,” said Michelle Slafkosky, the camp’s co-founder—with former colleague Deborah Mello—and the hospital’s manager of volunteer services. “Since we want students to see all the careers in a hospital, we didn’t want it to sound like a nursing camp.”

Participants—seven girls this year—spend five hours a day peeking in on surgeries in the operating room, training for adult and child CPR certification or shadowing physicians and nurses, dieticians and radiologists, and other hospital staff.

Each year, the program accepts the first 12 applicants. Eighty dollars covers meals, materials, a medical scrub top and the CPR registration fee. Slafkosky asks applicants, who come from all over the state, to write a short essay about why they want to be in the program.

Like the rest of her peers at last Tuesday’s intensive CPR training, 15-year-old Rebecca Rose, a home-schooled sophomore from Baltimore City, was dressed in a blue scrub top and beige khaki pants—attire similar to what healthcare professionals wear everyday on the job.

Rose’s aunt and uncle work as a pediatric nurse and an anesthesiologist, respectively. Growing up around them inspired her to consider a career in healthcare. But Camp ECHO, she said, also opened her eyes to some of what she considers the more gruesome realities of the profession.

“The O.R. is cool, but I don’t think I want to work there,” said Rose while taking a short break from the training. “I can’t deal with all the blood. It’s just not for me.” She enjoyed visiting the orthopedic floor during another group tour of the hospital, she said.

For Sade Handy, 15, nursing seems to run in the family. “Some of my aunts are nurses,” said Handy, a shy sophomore at Reach Partnership in Baltimore City. “I like being in the camp. It’s fun going to the different units, learning different things. I haven’t seen anything that I don’t like or that isn’t interesting.”

Shannon Cummins’ mother is a cardiac nurse at Saint Agnes. The 17-year-old Arundel High School senior is seriously considering becoming an ER nurse. “I like the idea of caring for people I don’t even know, and just helping people,” Cummins said.

Many of this year’s participants have yet to declare a college major, but the program’s directors and volunteers said one of the goals is to lure students into the healthcare field early on by showing them the rewards and challenges of working on behalf of others—and to steer some toward a different profession better suited to their talents and interests.

“We had one student who saw the O.R. room and decided she never wanted to step foot in there again,” said Joyce Hall with a chuckle. A longtime registered nurse and the hospital’s patient relations coordinator, Hall has worked with the camp since 2004 and now coordinates the program with Slafkosky. “That student went on to become a social worker.

“Everything we do here is optional,” continued Hall, adding that participants can choose not to witness a live birth, view in-progress knee surgeries or visit the morgue—all activities offered at past camps. Hall also prepares the curriculum, arranges hospital tours and chooses guest presenters such as Vonda Barber, last Tuesday’s CPR instructor from Health Quest, Inc.

“I use the same lessons with these high schoolers that I use with adults,” said Barber between drills, which involved performing procedures on a t-shirted rubber dummy. Campers learned how to properly pump its chest, do mouth-to-mouth and check for consciousness by shaking its shoulders and shouting, “Are you okay?” using real-life scenarios.

“What’s the first thing you need to do when deciding whether to do CPR on someone?” Barber asked the group during one of their drills. Although they gave the correct answer—to check that “the scene is safe”—they sounded like whispering angels, and needed to be told by Nyuma Harrison, an ER nurse at Saint Agnes and program volunteer, to speak up.

“You have to say it!” said Harrison from the side of the room. Harrison teaches clinical skills courses at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and brought her lesson plan to the campers last Friday.

“You usually hear kids say they want to be a surgeon or a pediatrician because that’s what they see on TV,” said Harrison, who graduated from Howard University’s nursing program nine years ago, “but it was good for them to see the food service area where we prepare patients’ meals. Every job at a hospital is important.”

Since 2004, 43 students have completed the program, with many who have only recently graduated from college. Slafkosky said she plans to contact past campers to see how many chose the healthcare profession, one of few industries still thriving since the recession hit in late 2007.

“I had an amazing experience,” said Jones, who plans to return to school for a second degree in nursing. “It was very beneficial for me.”

This is the unedited version. Another slightly edited version was originally published in the July 20, 2009 issue of the Baltimore Sun.

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