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Orozco students explore heart of the matter

One afternoon in May, eighth-grader Juan Jacobo of Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen prodded a pig’s heart with a scalpel, searching for the right atrium. He couldn’t find it.

“Give me your finger,” said Marco Garduno, who leads Alivio Medical Center’s Health Careers Enrichment Program, one of Orozco’s Elev8 afterschool offerings. The program’s goal is to encourage more bilingual students to pursue health careers—and the approach is hands-on.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Students learn to do blood pressure readings and the Heimlich Maneuver, but the dissections of pig's hearts and other organs are always the highlight.

Garduno plunged Juan’s latex-gloved forefinger into the pig’s heart resting on the lab table. “Right here.”

“Oh yeah, you can tell,” said Juan, noticing the wide vein that leads into the right atrium. Reviewing information presented earlier in class, Garduno drew Juan’s finger along the path of blood flow through the pig’s heart, from the right atrium down to the right ventricle and then out through the pulmonary artery.

The day’s main activity, which included both heart and kidney dissections, was part of a 12-week curriculum that covered topics including anatomy of several organs and the lifestyle choices that affect those organs’ health.

The program is more academic than the typical afterschool activity. Earlier, Garduno reviewed the three main types of diabetes for an upcoming test. Kids say they don’t mind the extra work, and they enjoy the information because it helps them with their career goals.

Carlos Gutierrez, a seventh-grader who wants to be either a surgeon or a forensic scientist, said he’s already repeated the 12-week course three times and likes learning the different parts of the heart. “I know 10,” he said.  

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Students say they don't mind the program being more academic than most after-school activities.

Piquing students’ interest in health careers is a step toward overcoming the shortage of bilingual health care providers, said Carmen Velásquez, the Alivio Medical Center founder and executive director. Alivio runs four similar programs for elementary, middle or high school students in Pilsen and other neighboring Latino neighborhoods.

Early indicators say that Alivio’s approach is working. Five of last year’s graduates who went on to Juarez High expressed an interest in eventually enrolling in a program that would allow them to graduate high school with a practical nursing license, said Garduno.

The 12 students enrolled in the Orozco program this spring include at least a half-dozen aspiring physicians in addition to a couple of hopeful forensic scientists and a prospective veterinarian. Later in the session, students will learn about other potential health careers including physician assistant, nurse practitioner and optometrist.

They’ll also learn to do blood pressure readings and the Heimlich Maneuver. But the organ dissections, said Garduno, are always the highlight.

When asked what got him interested in pursuing a medical career, Juan held up the bloody pig’s heart. “This,” he said.

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