High school students delivering babies? Welcome to Med School 101

Teen-agers from the Bay Area jump at the chance to see what it's like to go to medical school

Steve Fisch Photography

Students from Hayward, Palo Alto and San Jose prepare for surgery, stem cell and other med school lectures.

Sitting in the doctor's seat, 15-year-old Anna Escher furrowed her brow and looked up nervously. Her very pregnant patient was a robot, but it seemed all too real.

"This baby's coming out all on its own," said the assistant by Anna's side, Cindy Detata, MD, a Lucile Packard Children's Hospital obstetrician. "Wait for the mom to push the baby out."

Anna, together with a group of wide-eyed teen-age girls gathered around the foot of the fake mother-to-be, were participating in a new program for local high schoolers called "Med School 101," held March 24 at the medical school.

Drawn from Palo Alto, San Jose and Hayward, about 100 students came to campus to play Stanford med student for the day. Hoping to get an inside look at a the real-life version of TV shows like "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy," they practiced surgical techniques, learned about stem cell research and held real brains in their hands. And, like this group of teenage girls, they watched the birthing process for the very first time.

"Is the size of the baby real?" asked Anna, as she guided the tiny robotic newborn out of the birth canal. She flipped her ponytail to one side, pushed the sleeves of her red sweatshirt up high.

"Yeah, they're pretty small," said the pediatrician. She set the baby on the mother's chest and smiled. Anna's first- ever delivery was a success.

The new program, designed to expose teens to medical research and get them excited about careers in medicine, opened doors that are usually closed to the outside world.

The fake obstetrics ward where Anna practiced her birthing technique is actually part of the Center for Advanced Pediatric Education, a simulation center where doctors and nurses practice high-risk deliveries and other medical procedures on low-risk robots. Courses included a trip to a SUMMIT (Stanford University Medical Media & Information Technologies) lab where students practiced a variety of virtual surgeries. Students also heard lectures on hot topics like the bioethics of injecting human stem cells into the brains of mice and the popularity of medical science in filmmaking.

"Can human stem cells make a talking mouse?" lecturer Christopher Scott, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics Program in Stem Cells and Society, asked a classroom full of high schoolers. "Can we make mice that have human consciousness?"

But it was the hands-on interactive seminars that particularly excited the teens, seminars like the one at SUMMIT where, in addition to surgical simulations, the students got the chance to observe and play around with a computer program designed for training emergency medical personnel how to work as a team in a standard emergency situation.

"It's like SIMS," students murmured the instant the computer booted up, referring to a best-selling PC game that creates a 3-D virtual world where you're in control of lifelike characters. An instant crowd of teens appeared around the computer, "oohs" and "ahhs" filling the room.

"This is used to train EMTs and firefighters on how to take care of hundreds of injured people in case of, say, an earthquake or a bomb blast," said LeRoy Heinrichs, MD, PhD, director of surgical simulation and professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology. "Here's a scene where a bank gets bombed out."

"Amazing," said Calvin Parshad, 16, a student at Gunn High School.

"So cool," added Alex Chang, another Gunn student.

The conference opened with a greeting from Dean Philip Pizzo, and closed with a graduation ceremony. In between, students met Stanford researchers, chatted with medical and graduate students and listened to Stanford doctors with their own medical school stories to tell.

"I was really inspired by Pizzo's speech," said Parshad while walking across campus to the next seminar. "He made me realize it's not all about just getting good grades and getting into college. It's really a lifetime commitment. It's about learning new things in school and then applying what you learn out in the world."

High schooler Emily Gibbons said she mostly showed up for the day's events because she loves "Grey's Anatomy." It's her favorite show.

And maybe, according to the day's closing speaker Hannah Valantine, that will be enough to motivate her into med school some day. It's happened before.

"As a child I watched these TV shows that gave me this idea that medical school was fun," said Valantine, MD, senior associate dean for diversity and leadership and a cardiologist. And that's what med school turned out to be for her—a whole lot of fun.

"Stick to your vision," she told the students, many of them med-school hopefuls. "You all need to follow your passion and don't be dissuaded. We want to see you back here in the future."