Aliyah Barrett, a senior at Edgren High School on Misawa Air Base, Japan, and one of two students in the Volunteer Internship Program at the base hospital, takes patient Kuniko Casey’s blood pressure.

Aliyah Barrett, a senior at Edgren High School on Misawa Air Base, Japan, and one of two students in the Volunteer Internship Program at the base hospital, takes patient Kuniko Casey’s blood pressure. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Victor Olivares listens as Dr. Kim Mcilnay explains a diagnosis to a patient in the base hospital’s primary care clinic.

It’s nothing serious but Olivares is curious and asks the young airman a few questions. That’s the part Olivares loves: “In primary care, I get to interview patients, which is my favorite thing,” he said. “The doctor walks me through it. She tries to narrow down what’s actually going on. It’s really hands-on.”

Olivares is 17, a senior at Edgren High School hoping to go to college “somewhere in Texas.” When he takes a seat the first day in freshman biology, he’ll likely have a jump-start on thousands of pre-med majors across the country. Through the Misawa American Red Cross and 35th Medical Group’s Volunteer Internship Program, or VIP, Olivares is experiencing what it’s like to work in a hospital from the perspective of health-care specialists including a lab technician, orthopedic surgeon, dentist, family care doctor, pharmacist and nurse.

“This is a big heads-up before going to college and deciding which track I want to go,” Olivares said Monday morning, after arriving at the hospital bright and early before the day’s first patients.

VIP is a competitive program for Misawa juniors and seniors interested in entering any health profession. Students are Red Cross volunteers, meaning they earn no school credit or financial compensation for more than a hundred hours spent in seven clinics throughout the school year. But they may get a chance to observe arthroscopic surgery or help prepare a cast, draw blood, make dental impressions, listen to a fetal heartbeat or watch a pharmacist dispense meds.

Olivares is learning says Mcilnay, who juggles being a family practice physician and the medical director of the very busy primary care clinic. It would be easy for the Air Force captain to have Olivares help with more mundane tasks such as filing and paperwork. But “my focus is on him learning,” she said. “I love teaching and trying to encourage other folks to come into medicine, as well.”

While Olivares listens to robust hearts and abnormal lungs, down the hall in internal medicine, Aliyah Barrett records vital signs and assists in pap smear procedures. Like Olivares, the Edgren High School senior also hopes to find her calling in health care.

“I wanted to see what it was really like,” she said.

That’s exactly what Red Cross volunteer Sharon Stone hopes the program does.

Medicine is “such a broad career field,” she said, “from being a tech to be being a specialized surgeon and everything in between. This will give them a little bit of a head start. Also, these students are used to military life. My hope is they’ll see military medicine as a good career choice.”

Stone, also the Red Cross hospital chairwoman, began thinking about VIP after a high-school student asked her about volunteering at the hospital.

“She said she wanted to be a doctor,” Stone recalled. “I thought, ‘OK, where am I going to place her where she doesn’t get bored to death filing records?’”

Such volunteer opportunities at Misawa were limited, Stone said. Unlike in the States, no major U.S. medical centers are nearby. It would be difficult, she said, to volunteer at a hospital downtown where Japanese is spoken.

Stone formed a committee, which included hospital representatives, Misawa’s Red Cross station manager and the Edgren school counselor. Over several meetings, they designed the clinical volunteer program.

Stone’s husband, Lt. Col. Eric Stone, 35th Medical Operations Squadron commander, works at the hospital. Stone said her ideas came from “seeing what my husband did in medical school and seeing what the need is here.”

Medical school students rotate through different specialties, working closely in each field with a clinical teacher, Stone said. In VIP, students are assigned to a “preceptor” — a mentor who teaches and supervises them in each clinic. The program lasts for the school year so students can rotate through as many sections as possible, spending about 20 hours a week for several weeks in each clinic.

It’s a scaled-down version of medical school, Stone said. “It’s just not as intensive.”

Patients must consent to have the student observe with the medical provider.

“We’ve never had anyone refuse her to sit in,” said Jon Williams, a nurse and internal medicine technician currently mentoring Barrett.

A pilot program last spring for one semester saw one student; Stone hopes interest will grow.

“We can handle up to four students,” she said, adding that one’s interest in health need not be in the traditional sense.

“If they’re interested in research and they want to work for [National Institutes of Health], then that would qualify,” she said.

Students typically apply at the start of the school year; they also must be a status of forces agreement ID-card holder and have a 3.0 or higher grade point average.

Olivares and Barrett say they highly recommend the program. Olivares, for example, said that in September he was interested in pathology and biomedicine. Now, he’s not so sure.

“I’m noticing all these other areas at the hospital that are just great,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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