Cilina Murphy (center), a rising junior at Cherokee (N.C.) High School, practices her laparoscopic surgery skills in the Center for Applied Learning at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center during the weeklong Medical Careers and Technology Academy.
WINSTON-SALEM — Cilina Murphy, a rising junior at Cherokee High School in North Carolina, already knows her senior project is going to be about diabetes.
She has a personal stake in it: Her grandmother, great-grandmother, an aunt and several cousins have Type 2 diabetes.
“I see my grandma and great-grandma take insulin shots and what looks like 500 pills, and I really don’t want to end up like that,” said Cilina, who is Cherokee. “I want to learn how I can take care of them.”
Cilina’s interest in diabetes brought her to Winston-Salem in July for the weeklong Medical Careers and Technology Academy (MedCaT), an annual program that provides Native American and other students from western North Carolina with hands-on learning experiences and up-close exposure to careers in health care.
Cilina, who hopes to become a pathologist, was among 23 participants in the 2014 program, the third year MedCaT has been held at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Wake Forest University.
The program, established in 2010, is conducted by Wake Forest Baptist’s Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity in partnership with other entities at the medical center and university, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Center for Native Health Inc. and Western Carolina University, with support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
MedCaT is open to health-occupation students entering the 10th, 11th and 12th grades at six high schools – Murphy, Andrews, Robbinsville, Swain, Smoky Mountain and Cherokee – in the sparsely populated mountains of the state’s southwestern corner. The weeklong summer program is supplemented by two follow-up sessions held in the students’ home area during the school year. MedCaT is free, and while it is mainly intended for Native Americans, all students are eligible.
One of MedCaT’s goals is to increase diversity in the health care workforce. Studies have shown that increased ethnic and racial diversity among health professionals can improve both access to and the quality of care in underserved communities.
“A significant portion of our students have a strong desire to go back to their communities once they’ve completed their educations,” said Sarah Langdon, project manager at the Angelou Center. “It goes beyond being an EMT or pharmacist or nurse or nurse’s aide. It’s about bringing that service back to their communities. The students see a defined need that they can fill.”
One of this year’s sessions took place at the Center for Applied Learning on Wake Forest Baptist’s main campus. There, the students viewed a film about laparoscopic surgery then were taken to a training room where they were able to use real surgical tools to get a sense of how to manipulate modern medical devices. In another room at the center, they received a lesson in emergency medicine, using CPR and other techniques to help revive a dummy “patient” in cardiac arrest.
The MedCaT program also included in-depth discussions about diabetes, obesity and heart disease, conditions rampant among American Indians in North Carolina.
Ronny Bell, director of the Angelou Center, said educating young students about chronic conditions and encouraging them to consider careers in health care can help bring about positive change.
“Once you’re diagnosed with diabetes, you live with it the rest of your life, and it hits certain racial and ethnic groups – blacks, Hispanics and Indians – particularly hard,” said Bell, a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. “The good news is that Type 2 diabetes can be prevented. That gives me hope as we start learning more about diabetes we will be able to help these populations that are disproportionately affected.”
Bell’s words had special meaning for Cilina Murphy.
“I’m in a really bad situation for that,” she said. “I want to learn how I can prevent getting it, and how I can treat it.”