The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Rio Rancho campus Health Careers Academy has taken place via Zoom for two summers in a row.
(Photo courtesy of UNM Health Sciences.)

Although COVID-19 left them largely confined to home and in front of a computer screen for Zoom sessions, the last 17-plus months only heightened Sandoval County high school students’ interest in pursuing health care careers.

They saw firsthand how the pandemic impacted their communities, and they wanted to be a part of that greater cause. And the two-week summer Health Careers Academy program, which was developed locally through collaboration between the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and Rio Rancho Public Schools, is seeing an increase in area students joining the program.

Other areas of the state host a similar program through UNM Health Sciences.

“I do think that COVID helped me and other students to realize the importance of health professions, to truly be able to see how rewarding they can be,” said Alexis Heslop, a senior at Cleveland High School. “You would hear in the media and everything about all the health professionals, all that they do for the community. You really see how needed those people are, how vital they are to the entire community. I’d definitely say it piqued my interest.”

Laura Burton, the associate director of business operations at the UNM Health Sciences Rio Rancho campus, said the pandemic did spark program interest from Rio Rancho students particularly. Based on an RRPS survey, she said the health care field has consistently been a top-two choice of profession for Rio Rancho students in recent years.

Paullee Martinez, a senior at Bernalillo High School, said her interest in the program grew even more when COVID-19 hit the area.

“I was seeing how it was affecting people, how health care workers were really on the front lines. I really wanted to learn more about stuff like that,” Martinez said. “I think a lot more kids just really wanted to be more involved with health careers since COVID hit.”

Jenell Pollard oversees the Health Careers Academy program’s Sandoval County high school students at UNM Health Sciences Center’s Rio Rancho campus.
(Matt Hollinshead/Observer)

Aside from Rio Rancho, the program also serves students from Bernalillo, Cuba and some of the tribal areas.

Martinez said her brother, Isaac, contracted COVID-19 but soon recovered.

Heslop said she knew a few people who tested positive for COVID-19, despite being asymptomatic.

Those experiences in turn heightened their desire to join the program and eventually go to medical school.

Martinez and Heslop said the experience of the past 17-plus months will in turn help them become more well-rounded medical workers.

Making the most of the experience

Burton said students were able to shadow medical professionals during the first year of the program, but in June, the Health Careers Academy finished its second summer in a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although interactions remain limited to Zoom meetings, students do plenty of basic hands-on work such as CPR training, taking blood pressure, reading vital signs and using a stethoscope.

“They got a wide range of experiences,” Burton said.

She also said students had COVID-related question-and-answer sessions, as well as Zoom meetings with a trauma nurse and with orthopedics department representatives.

Jenell Pollard, who oversees the program’s Rio Rancho students, said respiratory therapists also gave presentations on how COVID-19 affects respiratory health, which led to increased student interest. She also said things like infection control, personal protective equipment and radiology were discussed during other sessions.

“Being exposed to the pandemic, students were able to have a greater appreciation for those health careers, or they were more opened up to a more broadened sense of what health careers can do to help their community as a whole, specifically during the pandemic,” Pollard said.

Heslop said the program even emphasizes how to manage stress in places like the intensive care unit.

“We had several health care professionals that mentioned that side of their profession. They were actually very straight-forward and blunt about their professions, emphasized the good as well as the bad,” Heslop said.

Pollard said she also noticed students developed an even greater degree of empathy for what health care workers went through and still go through during the pandemic.