HARDIN — Five students stood at a table in the Hardin High School commons Thursday morning and examined pig hearts.
The students, dressed in paper gowns and masks and rubber gloves, prodded the organs, asked questions and used scalpels to cut them open. Their interest was coupled with a few “eewwws” from the less hardy in the group.
“We use pig hearts because they’re really closely related to human hearts, they’re close in structure,” Jacob Small told them.
Small, a junior technology education major at Montana State University, was manning one of the many booths at a health fair Thursday at the high school. It was just one of the activities included in the three-day Native American Healthy Living and Medical Careers Week.
Sponsors of the event included the National Library of Medicine, U.S. National Institutes of Health, the nonprofit Mentoring in Medicine and Montana State University School of Nursing.
Seven hundred high school and middle school students kicked off the week Tuesday by viewing a multimedia online exhibition, “Native Voices,” that explored the connections of wellness, illness and the cultural life of Native people. Students sat at a long line of iPads to watch the presentation produced by the National Library of Medicine.
On Wednesday, they learned about the cardiovascular system. And Thursday, students rotated into the health fair, heard presentations from health care professionals in their classrooms and then took part in an afternoon all-school assembly.
The week was about equipping students with health and medical information and exposing them to possible medical careers.
Fred Wood, science program leader with the National Library of Medicine, the largest medical library in the world, said part of the agency’s outreach mission is to make sure its information is available around the country, particularly to under-served and minority communities.
“Here, our No. 1 goal is to empower the Native community,” Wood said. “We want to honor and respect their tribal sovereignty and re-empower tribes, including their culture and community. And part of empowering is strengthening education for Native youth.”
Much of the library’s medical information is available online through MedlinePlus. For people without Internet access at home, community centers and schools can give them the access they need, Wood said.
The nonprofit Mentoring in Medicine is committed to encouraging students in disadvantaged areas to get involved in health care professions, said Andrew Morrison, vice president of marketing for the New York-based group.
The group’s tagline is “turning dreamers into health professionals,” Morrison said.
“I think by the year 2016, there’s going to be a major shortfall, especially of primary-care providers all across the country,” he said.
Even if students aren’t up to the many years it takes to become a physician, other health care careers require less education, including registered nurses, X-ray technicians and certified nursing assistants who need only several weeks of training.
Morrison called the three-day Hardin event a pilot program. Until now, his organization has focused on urban locations, including New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif.
He met some nursing instructors from MSU at a luncheon. When the National Library of Medicine, partner to Mentoring in Medicine, said it would like to do an outreach to American Indians, Morrison turned to MSU for help.
MSU had another booth at the health fair, where students got a hands-on lesson in CPR. The Billings Area Indian Health Service also was on hand, as was MSU Billings.
In one of the classrooms, Phillip Nel, a native of South Africa who is based in Butte, talked about his work as a remote medic. Nel has traveled all over the world for his job.
The work is interesting but not always easy, he said. In Somalia, Islamic standards dictate that a female patient be placed behind a screen, with only her husband able to see and touch her.
Through an interpreter, Nel has to instruct the husband how to take her blood pressure and even how to suture an injury.
“You learn a lot” on the job," he said.
Back in the commons, junior Justin Stewart, from the Hardin area, and Pixie Real Bird, of Garryowen, handled the pigs’ hearts. Using previously learned health information, Justin was quick to answer Small’s questions about the heart.
“I remember about how strong the heart is,” he said. “I find it interesting to learn new things, especially about the heart.”
Pixie had no trouble slicing through the heart with a scalpel. She’s interested in becoming a pharmacist.
Pixie said more Native people should go into medical fields. She said seeing some of them at the health fair was a good thing.
“It gives me a clue that I can do it, too,” she said.
Hardin High Principal Rob Hankins said it’s been a fun week for his students. Hands-on learning is the best kind, he said.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students to see the number of fields in medicine and see what they have to do to pursue those fields,” Hankins said.
Small mentioned one other reason to expose students who might never have before thought about health careers.
“Any one of them could unlock the cure for cancer,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet.”