Brunswick hospital summer program gives teens taste of health-care careers

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BRUNSWICK — For a kid, a hospital can be a scary place.

But it can also be an exciting one, full of learning and opportunity, as 49 students are finding during an eight-week summer program at Mid Coast Hospital.

The students are changing hospital beds, completing discharges, helping nurses – and even directing visitors in the emergency room.

They are this year’s cohort of Junior Volunteers, a program that started at Mid Coast Hospital Auxiliary in the early 1960s and provides 13-to-18-year-olds with exposure to jobs in the medical field.

“The Junior Volunteer program is a wonderful feeder program for health-care careers,” hospital spokeswoman Judy Kelsh said in an email. 

“The experience … can support prospective employment, as well as (earn volunteers) recommendations for colleges,” Kelsh said, although she could not precisely say how many volunteers end up working in the medical field.

She noted, however, that “student volunteers may be eligible for health-care career scholarships that are granted annually by the Mid Coast Hospital Auxiliary.” 

Echoing Kelsh, Darcy Baggett, coordinator of the volunteer program, added that the influx of junior volunteers picks up the slack from volunteers who leave after the school year ends in the spring.

“It teaches them job skills and helps the hospital,” Baggett said. “It’s win-win.”

Volunteers take on support roles in divisions such as maternity, digestive health, the ER and the information desk, but according to Baggett, “volunteers can do just about anything a department allows them to do.”

One volunteer gets the special privilege of tending to the hospital gardens. This year, she is Brunswick’s 13-year-old Hannah Heitzall, who begins her day in the sunshine before heading to the ER, where she is a greeter. 

The ER “can be scary,” Heitzall said, especially when the arrivals are distressed, sick, or very elderly. “But I like being social.”

Baggett stressed the importance of giving young volunteers consistent schedules and responsibilities within the hospital. The consistency of, for example, manning the information desk all summer results in the honed development of critical job skills.

“But in the meantime, they get to meet the staff,” Baggett said. “They see (the doctors), and that sparks an interest.”

Wearing a crisp, royal blue polo shirt, future neurosurgeon Gaige Elwell, a 13-year-old volunteer from Lisbon, sat at the helm of a cash register in the hospital’s cafe.

“This may sound a little weird,” Elwell said as he counted change, “but (recently) I got into the weird side of YouTube. I started watching surgeries.”

Brains surgeries, mostly. Watching the videos online, he said, “each time, I felt a spark in me, and I knew I wanted to be a neurologist.”

Most days, Elwell does administrative work in the medical offices, or can be found at the cash register. Either way, he is dreaming about what goes on in the neurology wing, and hoping that one day, he will spend his time making an entirely different kind of change – the kind that involves a scalpel.

In the meantime, the volunteers have found a way to leave a meaningful impact without a medical degree. Aug. 4 marked the date of the junior volunteers’ annual bake sale to benefit the hospital’s Teddy Bear Club. 

The Teddy Bear Club provides stuffed animals to young patients admitted to the hospital. Baggett, who supervised this year’s bake sale, said a teddy bear can be just the thing to calm down or comfort a child “when they experience pain, fear, or trauma.”

The idea for the bake sale originated 15 years ago, when a junior volunteer came up with the concept as a way to raise money to buy bears. A decade and a half after its inception, junior volunteers sell about 1,000 baked goods and treats every year, netting the program approximately $600 of additional funding.

Shannon Coray, director of volunteer services, estimated the hospital gave out nearly 2,500 bears last year, supported by funding from local business, schools, and, of course, the bake sale.

But at Mid Coast Hospital, a teddy bear isn’t the only thing you can give a kid to make their day.

After catching wind of his enthusiasm for MRIs and CAT scans, hospital President and CEO Lois Skillings visited the volunteer office to invite Elwell to spend a day in neurology.

When he realized what was happening, “my jaw dropped to the floor,” Elwell said. “I just sat there in shock. It’s like my dream coming true.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Hannah Heitzall, left, Alyssa Wyman, Mallory Palmer and Cara Munsey sold baked goods Aug. 4 to benefit Mid Coast Hospital’s Teddy Bear Club. They are among 49 students in the hospital’s junior volunteer program this summer.

Mid Coast Hospital’s annual Teddy Bear bake sale in Brunswick typically raises $400-$600 for the Mid Coast Auxiliary’s Teddy Bear Club.

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