More and more students, curious about the healthcare field, are enrolling in medical courses at the Billings Career Center — and more are advancing to higher-level classes.
However, those classes call for specialized instruction and specialized equipment. For several years, the Career Center has had teachers covered. Then last year, with help from donations, the school built a lab that replicates an operating room and other steps in the surgical process.
"The interest keeps growing," said Dr. Connie Haan, a Career Center teacher and former surgeon.
This year, there's a body for the operating table. It's got a pulse, blood pressure, and might have a heart attack as students are preparing for medical procedures.
But there's no life behind its bizarrely-blinking eyes. "Hal" is just a high-tech dummy; a mannequin that can produce outputs mimicking health measurements and runs on software that can simulate health emergencies.
It's the same sort of equipment that hospitals use for training. And it took help from a hospital to get students in front of one.
The St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation donated $10,000 to help get Hal in the classroom. Partnerships between the School District 2 and employers have become increasingly common as the district tries to add more career-specific training opportunities for students, and as employers look to bolster their workforce.
"We're trying to continue to build our pipeline," said St. Vincent Chief Nursing Officer B.J. Gilmore. She readily admitted that she was partial to nurses, but that Montana hospitals are recruiting in almost every healthcare job.
For students, experience with Hal helps give more realistic training. Even with his plug-in pulse, students can get an idea of how different situations can unfold across the surgical process, from preparation to recovery.
Exposure to that can be challenging for high schoolers.
"Not everybody knows what happens behind those double doors," Haan said.
Getting a peek through is a valuable experience in more than one way, students said.
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Seniors Hannah Miller and Austyn Halland are each in their third year in a sequence of biomedical courses at the Career Center. The first level now gets about 150 kids enrolled each year. The second is up to 60 this year. The third gets about 10, and numbers for each level have skyrocketed in recent years.
This third course, medical interventions, is the toughest yet. It's not a college-credit course, but its academic rigor is similar.
Miller and Halland both plan to pursue medical careers, but through different paths. Miller sees herself attending a four-year university and then getting a graduate degree in a biomedical or biotechnology field. Halland plans to attend Arrowhead Bible College before entering the military and working as an Emergency Medical Technician.
Both students got interested in biomedical classes during an eighth-grade tour of the Career Center, and through recommendations from classmates.
They've stuck with the biomedical track because, despite the hard work, they enjoy the classes. But they also want exposure to the type of work they'd do as adults.
With training in the mock operating room with Hal, "it definitely gives us an opportunity to be hands on," Halland said.
That's important to get a leg-up on their career paths, but also to take an off-ramp while they're still in high school.
Miller and Halland both wanted the chance to pivot to a new interest if medicine wasn't for them. Halland, who's also in an EMT course at the Career Center, has heard from students who realized that they weren't cut out for medicine during the class.
Despite the new technology, both students emphasized the importance of Haan connecting with students, and integrating her medical expertise.
"She has trust in us, and we have trust in her," Miller said.
Haan is hoping to helping convey some of that intangible importance in students' medical training.
"We want to give them a strong foundation as a total package," she said, and "to not loose their compassion in the process."