There is nothing like “being there” to create impressions and reinforce learning. That is the premise of three innovative programs at Memorial Health Meadows Hospital that place young people in an environment where they shadow medical professionals and experience first-hand how health care works.
The hope is that these programs built by medical staff with the support of area educators will encourage young people to pursue careers in health care, return to the community to help the region thrive, and to inspire the next generation.
The Medical Youth Advisory Board, Volunteen, and HOSA programs target youth as potential future health care professionals and familiarize them with the many facets of health care while they are still in high school. “As they move on to the next level of education, we hope they will look at this line of work and come back into our community and explore opportunities with us,” said Meadows CEO Matt Hasbrouck. “We see this as full circle; not short-term, but long-term. Through these programs we are not only giving back to the community but positioning our medical facility for the future.”
Medical Staff Youth Advisory Board
Initiated in 2007, the Medical Youth Advisory Board (MYAB) was the first of its kind in the area. “It is a unique program that is not led by the hospital but the medical staff who are fully invested in this endeavor,” Hasbrouck emphasized.
“The program was Dr. Geoff Conner’s brainchild,” said Karen Claxton, Director of Medical Staff Services, who was instrumental in the program’s development. “Dr. Conner brought back some information from a youth advisory board at a bank in Swainsboro as a model,” Claxton recalled.
“I was Chief of Staff (at Meadows) at the time, and I was looking for ways to promote the hospital and its relationship with residents within the region,” Dr. Conner recalled. “I saw a billboard in another community about a bank’s advisory board and thought we might be able to do that at the hospital,” he said. He consulted with Claxton and the hospital administration, and soon the idea became reality. “Karen (Claxton) is one of the strongest assets that the hospital has; she has been the medical staff coordinator for many years. She picked up the ball and made this program work and has improved it every year,” Dr. Conner emphasized.
MYAB’s intent was to closely screen participants and only accept serious students who had already proven themselves academically. The numbers of applicants was limited. “The hope was that the program would be a pipeline to educate these young people in the health care field and to encourage them to come back to support our medical community,” Dr. Conner said. He pointed out that from the start the program was a two-way street for both the students and the medical community.
“We wanted input from the youth on ways we could improve the delivery of medical care, to get their perspective. In return we set up sessions where they could spend time with medical providers to see what it was like to be a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a nurse, a lab tech. In the early days, we even had some dentists participating,” Dr. Conner explained.
Dr. Karen McColl, now Chief Medical Officer at Meadows, was the program’s first medical director. Dr. McColl, who joined the hospital staff in 2007, has a background in education. “Because she had experience working with youth, she was a natural choice to get involved with the Advisory Board,” Dr. Conner said.
In 2008, Meadows started offering applications to local high schools for students interested in joining the Advisory Board. Meadows worked with high school counselors in the selection of the applicants who were required to obtain letters of recommendation to be considered. “We started with a fairly small group of about 15 or 16,” Dr. McColl said. Monthly meetings were held with Meadows staff and the Advisory Board, where students would hear presentations and gain insight into the medical and health care field, and more.
“We had great community buy-in,” McColl said. The Georgia State Patrol presented a program on drunk driving, and students learned about child safety and car seats. Tours of the hospital provided an up close look at the daily operations of a medical facility, and physicians, nurses, technicians, pharmacists, and others talked about their education- to- application experiences.
The program was first offered in Toombs County to private and public schools, and even to some homeschooled students. It spread to other counties in the hospital’s regional service area, and Meadows is still seeing some impressive results. “We hope to see the first physician from this program come back to our community in 2024,” Dr. McColl said.
Because of community response, the program has had more applicants than could be accepted.
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“We only accept seniors in the program now, and we no longer have to recruit,” Dr. McColl said. In fact, there is a waiting list.
In 2010, Vidalia gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Susanna Meredith succeeded McColl as program director. Dr. Meredith is a Vidalia native who once shadowed local medical practitioners as she earned her degree in medicine. “I am passionate about this program,” Dr. Meredith said. “The competitive process for this program is very strenuous. We want the best and the brightest from our area schools to be exposed to health care as a profession and to come back to our community,” she said.
In her role as Director of Medical Staff Services at Meadows, Claxton coordinates medical students who are performing medical rotations at the hospital. Claxton also handles credentialing and privileging of medical personnel recruits. She not only tracks the progress of these medical students, but also the members of the Advisory Board, many of whom have returned to the community to work. “In our community, we have physician assistants, nurse practitioners, speech therapists and many others who have gone through the Advisory Program and who have returned to work here,” Claxton said. There is even a Facebook page that helps alumni to keep in touch.
The Advisory Board program also provides scholarships. Claxton explained that the medical staff, through its association dues, supports a scholarship program that provides five $1,000 scholarships annually to program graduates.
Maggie Beach, who will begin her college experience at Georgia Southern University this fall, is a recipient of a scholarship from the Meadows Medical Staff, as well as the Hospital Auxiliary. She is also one of four area high school students awarded a traditional scholarship from Share Health Southeast Georgia. Share offers scholarships to both traditional and non-traditional students pursuing a career in health care and who reside in the 16 counties served by the Southeast Health District. She also received a Medical Occupations Club scholarship from VHS.
Beach plans to be a CRNA (certified registered nurse-anesthetist) or a nurse practitioner, and is already at work in the pharmacy at Meadows where she completed on-the-job training to become a pharmacy technician certification. An alumnus of the Advisory Board, Beach applied for the position at Meadows when she turned 18 in February. As part of her duties, she refills medicines and prepares IVs. She wants to come back to Meadows to work when she completes her college education.
In response to the popularity of the Medical Advisory Board, Meadows launched another program in the summer of 2023 aimed at acquainting youth with the health care profession.
Hillary Thompson, Vice President of Human Resources, oversees this program which is similar to the Advisory Program, but only takes place in the summer and is not as academically competitive. The program requires that students commit to volunteer at least 40 hours during the summer. “Most will do way more,” Thompson said. The participants’ hours are tracked on a time sheet, and they receive recognition for their volunteer efforts.
Last March, area schools were sent information about the new program and 24 students, ages 15 to 19, were accepted for participation. The students came from counties throughout Meadows’ regional service area: Toombs County High School, Vidalia High School, Robert Toombs Christian Academy, Vidalia Heritage Academy, Pinewood Christian Academy, Wheeler County High School, and some homeschooled students.
The students were assigned to volunteer their time in six different departments: radiology, lab, therapy, labor and delivery, materials management, and emergency. Each student received a schedule assigning them to 4- or 8-hour shifts in one of the six areas, and then rotated throughout those areas to gain a broader perspective in the health care setting.
“A lot of the students had paying jobs, so we rotated around their job
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schedule,” Thompson said, noting this program accommodates volunteers from the 10th to 12th grades, as well as high school graduates. During their volunteer hours, the participants shadow personnel in the health care setting, so they are getting real life, real time experiences.
Madison Starr, who participated in the Volunteen and MYAB programs, starts college at Mercer University this fall. As an accomplished softball player, she earned an athletic scholarship and will pursue studies in medicine. Her goal is to become an OB-GYN physician or a CRNA.
Starr had high praise for the eight-week Volunteen program. “The program included a tour of the hospital and shadowing staff in different departments for several hours a day,” she said, adding that the Volunteens are “silent witnesses” to the activities within each of the departments, but also have opportunities to meet and interact with staff and become familiar with their roles.
“I liked the fast pace of the emergency department,” Starr said, adding that she was inspired as she shadowed Dr. Meredith in the labor and delivery department.
“It is mutually beneficial,” Thompson said of the process which brings together students and staff.
HOSA—Future Health Professionals
Another program aimed at attracting youth to the health care industry involves collaboration between Meadows and Vidalia High School. Shellie Cleghorn, a registered nurse, teaches four courses in the CTAE (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education) Science/Health Care pathway at VHS. Her counterpart, Blake Brooks, teaches sports medicine.
Cleghorn is also an advisor for the HOSA — Future Health Professionals program, a national, state and local association which sponsors competitions and learning opportunities for high school students. “We started with about 24 kids five years ago and now have about 100 kids in the membership each year. Through this program, kids go to conferences and competitions in places like Washington, D.C., Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta, and Athens.”
Locally, the association partners with Meadows for a wide array of projects during the year, including participation in Health Care Employees’ Night, Hospital Week, and cancer care patient meetings. The organization also does fund raising and donations to the hospital and cancer patients, and decorates the sidewalks for Breast Cancer Awareness Week.
In her role at VHS, Cleghorn teaches “Introduction to Health Care,” “Essentials of Health Care” (anatomy), “Patient Care Fundamentals,” and “Allied Health.” During the school day, students don white scrubs and visit the hospital to shadow health care providers. “Some have observed in the Emergency Department, some observed the phlebotomists, and so on. We wanted the kids to have real world experience. It clicks more when they can see it for themselves,” Cleghorn emphasized.
HOSA participants also take field trips to area colleges and technical schools where health care education is offered, like Southeastern Technical College, SECCA (Southeastern Early College and Career Academy) and Brewton Parker College. Additionally, students can earn their certified nursing assistant certificate while enrolled in the high school program.
Cleghorn, who is going into her sixth year of teaching in the program, started working last summer with Meadows Chief Nursing Officer Jeff Harden, who is an advisor for the HOSA program, along with Dr. Meredith. The advisory group meets once or twice a year to plan and coordinate student activities.
Harden, whose role at Meadows involves clinical rotations of the medical staff, has been directly involved in placing the HOSA students strategically in the hospital environment for optimum out-