Jovanna Orellana pulled a set of disposable paper coveralls over her body, tied a surgical mask around her face, scrubbed up and stepped into a bright, sterile Kern Medical Center operating room.

A surgeon briefed the high-school junior on the surgery, and moments later, she was watching as a team comprised of a surgeon, a surgery tech, an anesthesiologist, a registered nurse, x-ray techs and others performed an operation on a woman’s elbow.

From a corner speaker, rapper 2 Chainz filled the room as doctors laughed and chatted.

“These doctors are regular people,” Orellana said as she watched over the procedure, just feet from the action. “This motivates me.”

Orellana doesn’t have a typical high school student’s schedule. By 9:30 a.m. most Wednesdays, she’s hustling from East Bakersfield High School across the street and walking through the double doors of Kern Medical Center’s third floor preoperative care department.

She ushers patients from the waiting room and gets them on gurneys, takes vitals, checks blood pressure readings, prepares IV bags, and does just about anything else nurses ask of her.

On some occasions — the very best occasions, Orellana says — she’ll sit in on a surgery and watch doctors practice their adrenaline-pumping craft. She hopes to one day call them colleagues.

“If I’m ever having a bad day on Monday, I know I can look forward to Wednesday for surgery,” Orellana said. “Plus, all my friends will be jealous when I go back to campus and tell them I went into the operating room.”

Program helps train homegrown medical professionals

Getting hands-on experience in the medical field is no easy feat, especially in high school. But Orellana gets the opportunity through East Bakersfield High School’s Health Careers Academy, an intensive college-preparatory program that allows students to take health-related elective courses and travel to Kern Medical Center once a week their junior and senior years of high school to work alongside medical professionals.

The program is just one of the innovative ways the Kern High School District has, for years, been working get more young people interested in health careers in a region that has been recognized by the federal government as a medically underserved region.

In the San Joaquin Valley, there were fewer than 40 primary care physicians per 100,000 people (the federal government recommends between 60 and 80), and just 65 specialists per 100,000 residents (the federal government recommends between 80 and 100) in 2015.

The district knows what data shows: when regions train their own medical professionals, there’s a greater chance they’ll remain local.

East High’s Health Sciences Academy, established in 1985, helps fill the need for more health professionals, although it’s not the main goal of the program, said Robert Lewy, the academy director.

“We’re trying to prepare the students to go to post-secondary education,” said Lewy, who describes the academy as “kind of a pre-pre-med.”

Students begin the academy their sophomore year as part of a class of about 30 who all attend the same core classes, which integrate health lessons. Academy students might work on projects in their history class, for example, researching the first documented cases of valley fever, or how the polio vaccine was developed. They also take courses in anatomy, physiology and medical terminology, among others.

Graduates describe the academy as a “school within a school” and credit some of the program’s success to the bonds classmates forge over a period of years.

The academy has seen results. It boasts a graduation rate of 99.9 percent, Lewy said, and he can recall graduates from just about every class who have gone on to pursue health careers. At least three have become doctors.

'It's all centered around the community'

For Marcos Solis, a respiratory therapy manager at Adventist Health Bakersfield, the academy helped prepare him for post-secondary health education and allowed him to build connections with physicians at Kern Medical Center, he said.

“It’s a networking opportunity, and you don’t see it like that as a student, but you meet these people and they remember you,” Solis said. “If you have a good work ethic as a teenager, people remember.”

Samantha Ortiz, a registered nurse in the critical care step-down unit at Adventist Health Bakersfield, said she got a job at Rheumatology Services Medical Group one week after graduating in 2008 from the Health Careers Academy. She also attended courses in the medical field at KHSD’s Regional Occupational Center.

Her bosses and co-workers later wrote her letters of recommendation to gain entry into a local nursing program that was impacted, she said.

Allison Zundt, another local health professional, said when she’s asked during interviews what led her to become a nurse, it always comes back to her experience with the academy.

“They love that. They know you’re invested in the medical profession, but also staying in Bakersfield because it’s all centered around the community with the Health Careers Academy,” Zundt said.

'They grow up pretty fast'

Another advantage of the academy? Allowing students to work hands-on in a variety of health professions so they can determine what specialties can become passions.

More than 100 East High students are rotating throughout 34 different departments at Kern Medical Center, exposing them not only to well-known health careers, but also more obscure ones. The student with the highest GPA each year gets the opportunity to rotate with the Kern County Sheriff Coroner’s office to learn how they perform autopsies, Lewy said.

“When [the students] go across the street to the hospital and do their job shadowing, they’re with their supervisors and there’s no teacher watching,” Lewy said. “They grow up pretty fast.”

And they discover what specialties they prefer quickly, too.

East High student Yasmin Gonzalez, for example, had planned to become a registered nurse in a labor and delivery unit after high school. Then she job shadowed in the department for a semester, never saw a delivery and decided she didn’t like it.

Instead, she wants to work with chemotherapy patients, she said.

“I got really attached to them,” Gonzalez said.

She also picked up some advice from nurses along the way who urged her to set aside her dreams of leaving Bakersfield for college and focus on getting an education locally.

“I don’t want to leave anymore,” Gonzalez said.

Her classmate, Estrella Ruiz, had a similar experience. She thought when she entered the Health Careers Academy that her professions in the health field were limited to either doctor or nurse. Ruiz thought she wanted to be a doctor, until she learned that the time they spend with patients is limited when compared to nurses.

“It’s an eye-opener because I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and now things have changed,” Ruiz said. “I can be so much more than just a nurse or a doctor.”

Job shadow sites limits program growth

The success of the program is limited only by the number of job shadow sites available to students, Lewy said. But in a community that is medically underserved, it creates a bit of a Catch-22.

“There’s a certain number of students we can take in without imploding,” Lewy said, adding that nursing programs at Cal State Bakersfield and Bakersfield College are historically impacted and qualified students graduating from the Health Careers Academy sometimes cannot enter as quickly as they would like.

“A lot of the students are forced to go outside of Bakersfield and we’re wanting them to get educated here and work here,” Lewy said.

It’s the same story at the district’s Regional Occupational Center, which offers several tracts and certification programs in health careers, including a medical assistant program. Despite its success, there are a limited number of medical offices able to partner with the district and, as a result, roughly 100 students are waitlisted annually, said Robin Moises, who heads the program.

“We need places for students to train,” Moises said.

As for Orellana, she’s willing to go through the years of training it requires to become a doctor. Her mind was made up the first time she was scrubbed into an operating room.

“I think it would be worth the 11 or 12 years going through school,” Orellana said. “I think I’m up to the challenge.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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