Novel MUHC program gives teenagers a place to STEP

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This past summer, forty eager students got an up-close look at the inner workings of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC)Ñand a leg up on their professional futuresÑcourtesy of the inaugural STEP (Student Training & Education Program) initiative.

The program, which ran from July 5 to August 20, has been in the works for two years, according to Nevine Fateen, Manager of Volunteer Services for the Montreal Chest Institute, the Montreal Neurological Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital at the MUHC, but it took a $5,000 donation from Pfizer Canada to see the project to fruition. “We’ve had the demand for this kind of program for a long time,” she says. “Pfizer’s generous donation was crucial to making it finally happen. There isn’t a program like this anywhere in Quebec.”

Fateen points out many younger students are eager to get some hospital experience under their belts. STEP was conceived to give teenagers 15 years of age and older a way to get some practical, hands-on volunteer experience in a hospital environment, to educate them about the vast spectrum of career opportunities and to provide them with some life skill training.

“High school and Cégep is a time where a lot of things, especially career paths, are quite confusing,” says Fateen, “even for the bright, serious young people in STEP.”

Upon acceptance to the program, the students were given a general orientation to the hospital before beginning the twice-weekly program at the MCI, MNH and RVH. These sessions focused on infection control, effective communication and confidentiality.

Each day began at 8:30, with a half-hour career information session, during which a hospital professional, such as a dietician, pharmacist, physician or human resources manager, lectured about his or her career path.

“A lot of students come to us thinking doctors are all there are in a hospital,” says Fateen. “Of course, doctors play an important role, but we want to show what other options existÑto plant the seeds with the younger generation of where the jobs are going to be.

“The idea is to give the students a clear idea of what it’s like to walk a mile in a physiotherapist’s shoes, or a pharmacologist’s shoes, or a surgeon’s shoes,” she says. “The professionals we’ve had come in to speak have been thrilled to participate. They love to beat the drum on behalf of their chosen careers.”

“The lecturers told us how they made their career choice and what they went through to make it happen,” says Jessica Lee. The 17-year-old just started her first year of health science studies at Marianopolis College. Although she has “known for a while” that she wants a career in the health field, she says the career conferences helped expand her options.

“Before, I was seriously considering ophthalmology,” she says, “but now I’ve opened up my choices to pharmacology, immunology, dieteticsÉ I never previously considered imaging as a career, for example, just because I didn’t know much about that field. Now there are several fields I’m considering, and my experiences in Cégep will help me decide further.”

Matthew Cheng, 16, also found the lectures very useful. “There was an orthodontal surgeon, for example, who gave us very clear, precise information about what it was like to spend thirteen years in school. It was very down-to-earth and helpful.” However, unlike Lee’s case, STEP only served to solidify Cheng’s previous plans. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid,” he says. “My goal is still to be a pediatrician. I don’t see myself being happy doing anything else.”

After the morning session, the students spent three hours volunteering in various areas of the MCI, MNH and RVH. They visited patients, helped with meals, participated in games and other activities and worked in the Humour Program lending out films.

“I learned how much patients really do appreciate your help,” says Cheng, who volunteered in the geriatrics unit and the daycare. “It may seem like you’re just a volunteer running a little bingo game, but it really, really helps the patients.

“The simplest of things can go the greatest of distances. One day, I spoke with a lady who felt that she was going to pass away soon. I just talked with her about the weather, and right away her face changed. She seemed very, very happy and calm. She didn’t see any visitors, she didn’t have any friends and family, and it put a smile on her face just to talk to someone about the rain.”

Lunch-hours were devoted to building skills. A retired Cégep professor taught the students how to deal with frustration, grief and loss, how to manage stress and how to present themselves. Two hours were devoted to the history of the Quebec healthcare system and time management. Afternoons were also spent volunteering.

Some students learned the hospital environment isn’t to their liking, but both Lee and Cheng thrived on it.

“They were fun days,” says Cheng. “It was never harsh; there’s always hope in a hospital. There’s always a concrete change that you can make. I’m not saying that any other job wouldn’t be as fulfilling.”

“My experience at the hospital was a positive one,” says Lee. “I’m a social person, and I don’t like it when you have nothing to do. I really liked the busy atmosphere.”

She and Cheng give STEP high marks. They enjoyed a sense of community, meeting students entering the same Cégep programs and benefiting from the wisdom of older students.

“I’ve talked to a lot of students who have already been through a year of Cégep,” says Cheng, “and they’ve told me how hard it is, how hard you have to study for exams. You have to take this seriously, even early on.”‘

“I met so many new people with similar goals,” adds Lee. “I feel like we’re a big team.”

On September 30, there will be a recognition reception for students who completed STEP 2004. Students interested in applying for next year’s program should contact the Volunteer Department at (514) 934-1934 ext. 34300 in April 2005.