Visit to Open-Heart Surgery Expands Students’ View of Medical Career Opportunities

For students like Ellis seniors Enysah Roberts and Nora Brown, who are both planning careers in a medical field, real-world learning experiences are everything. So when they found out they could take an anatomy course that included a visit to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) to view an open-heart surgery, they jumped at the chance.
For nearly two decades, students in Ellis’ Upper School anatomy class have had this opportunity through a program facilitated by the AGH McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute, which works with several schools in the region. Enysah says the experience is one thing that sets Ellis’ Upper School science program—and its students—apart from others, something she sees as a benefit as she considers college programs.

"If one is interested in the human body, or even just science, this opportunity can only work in your favor,” she says. "It would show how dedicated you are to that particular field. Even though the difference between high school courses and college courses is fairly dramatic, I still think it's important to take this class if you want to prepare for the content in your college courses or just for pure interest.”

Upper School Biology Teacher Kassie Wadsworth says the program with AGH is a unique moment for students to witness something incredible and also learn what it takes to make that moment happen.

"You can tell that [the AGH McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute] really prioritizes education, and it’s wonderful that they offer opportunities for students to see what it’s really like to be a doctor or a surgeon,” she says. "Another thing I love about it is that I think students get really caught up in thinking they want to be a doctor or a surgeon, but they don’t think about all the other professions represented in that room. They see nurses, physician assistants, and anesthesiologists, and they start to gain a good understanding of how to achieve that career path in addition to seeing something really amazing.”

That was true for both Enysah and Nora, who are considering many career options. Enysah is thinking about a career as a surgeon, pathologist, or medical researcher, while Nora is interested in studying to become a veterinarian or nurse anesthetist.

During the procedure, the students watch the surgery from a gallery above the operating room. A close-up view of the procedure also plays on a television screen in the gallery, projected from a camera worn by the surgeon. Afterward, both the head surgeon and the anesthesiologist meet with the students.

"We’ve seen a lot of really cool things over the years,” Ms. Wadsworth says. "The most recent one we saw was an aortic valve replacement. I think it’s one of those experiences that students remember and take away from the class, and I hope it does in some way inspire them to pursue this type of career.”

The experience complements the projects and labs Ms. Wadsworth leads in her anatomy class, which is open to juniors and seniors. She often gives students case studies to look at and then has the class analyze synthetic samples of blood work or urine and make determinations about what a “patient” might be experiencing. It builds problem-solving skills, she says, and teaches students to understand content and context so that they can problem solve effectively.

Earlier this year, the class dissected a pig heart for their cardiovascular unit and chicken wings for their muscular unit. Enysah says it allowed her to visually understand how different tissues and organs are interrelated and enabled her to appreciate the complexities of the systems within the human body. Nora says her favorite part of anatomy class is how immersed the students are able to be in the content, and that having the opportunity to view a medical procedure before even entering college helped her solidify her interest in the medical field.

Both students agree that the experience is one they will remember, and continue to think about during their studies, for a long time.

"This gives me hope that I will continue to carry this passion throughout my career in the future,” Enysah says.

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