Doctor for a Day Inspires Students of Color to Pursue Healthcare Careers

by Kamna Shastri

A group of six high school and middle school students are crowding around the respiratory therapist’s table, laid out with tubes and contraptions as he tells them about preventative medicine and the Affordable Care Act’s commitment to preventative care.

They listen in rapt attention, eyes scanning the table and then refocusing on the speaker. Beside this group is a table with trays full of human organs – a brain, a kidney, a liver, even a heart. The medical student volunteers behind this station pull away the cloth covering one of the trays to reveal a brownish liver. They explain the texture of the organ, and point out the little pores where blood vessels would run through were this still inside a body.

This is Doctor for a Day, a youth outreach program organized by UW-Student National Medical Association that helps young students of color in high school and middle school get acquainted with medicine and healthcare careers. The program takes place eight times a year, twice at Harborview Medical Center or the University of Washington Medical Center. The remaining sessions take place in neighborhoods around Seattle, such as this one which took place at Africatown, on S Alaskan street in the Columbia City.

The excitement and interest reverberated through the building, voices echoing against the ceilings. In one room, volunteers gathered around a rectangular table showing students how to administer physical exams, measure blood pressure and take vital signs. Across the hallway, students were introduced to other health related careers – physical therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, and occupational therapy. Yet another room contained a pathology station, full of human organs, and the respiratory therapy table.

At 11:30, the students broke for lunch and the stations cleaned up. After lunch, students learned how to perform intubation on a dummy, and participate in a patient interviewing session where they guessed at the correct diagnosis for each case.

Doctor for a Day began in 2013 thanks to the initiative of then first-year medical student Joy Thurman-Nguyen. Thurman-Nguyen went to Meany Middle school and Franklin High School, the same schools that many students at the Africatown workshop attend. As a young person of color, Thurman-Nguyen was vaguely interested in healthcare professions, but had no role models of color in the medical field.

“I didn’t have any family members or friends of the family who were in the healthcare field either so I didn’t have anybody to ask questions,” she said.

It was when Thurman-Nguyen went to Emory University to pursue a Master’s in Public Health that she found herself surrounded by doctors and mentors of color who inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. If only she’d had the opportunity to interact with such role models when she was younger, Thurman-Nguyen thought. By the time she was a first year medical student at University of Washington Medical School, she was already thinking about bringing about mentoring and healthcare exposure to young people of color in Seattle.

“I feel like since I was in that position of privilege and a position of power, I could even as a medical student start going out in the community and showing kids that becoming a doctor, or being in healthcare is possible,” said Thurman-Nguyen.

Thurman-Nguyen came up with idea and immediately found support from UW’s Center for Equity, Diversity, and inclusion. In 2013, Doctor for a Day had its first program at Africatown – four years later, they held their 3rd annual program there again.

The program runs on volunteer power and most of the volunteers are medical students themselves. Established health professionals are also invited as speakers to the program. Thurman-Nguyen says many medical students volunteer with enthusiasm because the program serves as a reminder of what healthcare is really about, serving the community and connecting with others, something that is often buried under the responsibilities of studying and taking tests.

Dirir Abdullahi is a first year medical student at the UW and started volunteering for Doctor for a Day this past year. Abdullahi began participating in science outreach with high-schoolers during his undergrad years, where he created a program that brought mentors in biomedical research to students at Highline high school.

“I really appreciate pipeline work because I’ve seen the amount of work it can do and I’ve seen the duties and the discipline and the professionalism that the students have learned. Doctor for a Day…fits exactly what I want to do because you are giving back to students who don’t see doctors that look like them…” Abdullahi said.

Doctor for a Day’s interactive, hands on approach immediately impacts and inspires its participants, not only in learning about their own goals in the health care industry, but also in the significance of those goals.

Abdullahi points out a diagram sketched on a whiteboard illustrating the mechanics of blood pressure. Earlier in the day a student asked him exactly what happens in the body when the blood pressure cuff Is strapped to your arm. Abdullahi went on to explain to the student by drawing a diagram. Immediately, the student reproduced the diagram and repeated each step back with accuracy.

In another example of the program’s impact, Thurman-Nguyen explained that when students look at the lungs, they recognize the very concrete difference between healthy lungs and smoke-choked lungs. At a workshop last year, a student finished the day and decided that she wanted to be a respiratory therapist after learning about how the lungs work and the variety of things respiratory therapists do.

Abdullahi notes that the program has a tangible impact on the youth, especially as they engage with stethoscopes and medical students. “I see it in their eyes” Abdullahi said about the yearning to have the things they are seeing around them.

The final message Doctor for a Day puts out is that students of color are needed in the health care industry. Thurman-Nguyen says that while local clinics are staffed with diverse individuals on the frontlines, the demographics for doctors is still rather white washed, something she hopes will change. With resources and engagement, there is a path for even those young people who might feel they don’t have role models in the healthcare profession to become doctors and healthcare providers. Doctor for a Day helps lay the foundation toward closing that gap.  

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The next Doctor for a Day program will take place at the Dale Turner Family YMCA in Shoreline.

Find out more about SNMU and Doctor for a Day at: https://www.facebook.com/UWsnma/

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