Health Careers Academy gives Sonoma County teens close-up view of medical jobs

Students participated in Health Careers Academy's yearlong pilot program that included classroom instruction as well as job shadows for a diverse slate of careers in the medical industry.|

Meghan O’Leary knew early on she wanted to go into the medical field. She spent much of her childhood caring for her mother, who O’Leary said suffered from severe liver cirrhosis and other health problems before she died last year.

“Since the age of 12, I was her primary caretaker,” she said.

Now an 18-year-old senior at Rancho Cotate High School, O’Leary is on the path to one day becoming a physician. She enrolled in the Health Careers Academy, a program launched in the fall to introduce high school juniors and seniors to careers in the health care field.

Nearly two dozen students countywide participated in the yearlong pilot program, which will be expanding to two classes in the fall for the 2016-17 school year. It provides classroom instruction along with job shadows in the maternity ward, labs, emergency and operating rooms and other units at Santa Rosa’s Kaiser Permanente.

With patients’ consent, students get a rare, close-up view of what medical personnel deal with on a daily basis, said Musetta Perezarce, program instructor and a hospital supervisor. It also introduces the teens to jobs in the field that they may not know exist, she said.

“I don’t know many teenagers who say, ‘I want to be a clinical lab scientist,’” said Perezarce, who initially wanted to go into education but became a registered nurse after a taking a year off college to explore jobs in the medical profession.

Kaiser, Santa Rosa Junior College, the Sonoma County Office of Education and the Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County teamed up for the program to encourage more teens to pursue medical careers.

“We want to make sure we get them engaged and get them early,” said Deborah Chigazola, dean of the college’s health sciences department. The college offers a similar program in the summer for high school students that also will be expanding, she said.

On Thursday, she and other school and hospital officials gathered at Kaiser for a special ceremony to honor the inaugural class of 22 students. Doctors and other staff dropped in to raise a glass filled with sparkling apple cider to the students, who wore burgundy scrubs.

“I challenges the graduates to follow their heart,” Chigazola said at the ceremony, where students received small wooden hearts as keepsakes.

Through the course of the year, students - who had to be 16 or older to participate - visited different hospital units each week, while lectures were done at the college, Perezarce said. Before being paired with surgeons, doctors, nurses and dietetic and lab technicians, students learned about patient privacy laws and infection control, Perezarce said.

They also received stress management training, which certainly came in handy for students dealing with squeamish situations.

Casa Grande High School senior Taylor Johnston witnessed the birth of a child while paired with a hospital employee.

“This lady was supposed to have a C-section, and the baby just started coming out,” said Johnston, 17.

Despite the excitement in the delivery room, Johnston said she prefers to work in anesthesiology.

Johnston said the course was an “eye-opening” experience for her and her classmates, who gathered after each visit to talk about the new diagnoses and medical terms they learned that day.

“We teach each other,” said Johnston, who in the fall watched a patient get an appendix removed.

“It’s a great opportunity for the students,” said her stepmother, Kelly Johnston. “I wish I had something like this when I was in high school.”

Stephen Jackson, director of career technical education at SCOE, said students could not learn those kinds of skills in a regular classroom.

He said the program will be offered next year through SRJC, which will allow students to receive college credit. However, Chigazola said they hope to offer the classes at Healdsburg High School and possibly at a high school in Santa Rosa, making it more convenient for students.

Expanding to two classes will allow organizers to double enrollment to about 40 students, Perezarce said.

They also hope to expand the program to other hospitals in the future. Most of the students involved this year were seniors. Perezarce said they felt they were part of “something big” while spending time at Kaiser.

Hospital personnel and patients appreciate having the students around, said Judy Coffey, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente Marin-Sonoma.

“It’s inspirational,” she said. “We get as much out of it as they do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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