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Medical immersion for students shifts online in pandemic

Livia Rizzo talks with high school students.

When the patient went into cardiac arrest, more than a dozen high school students started CPR.

Urged on by a watching ER doc, the students didn’t let up until the patient, 78-year-old Bettie Smith, revived and sat up, to everyone’s relief. After all, it had been their recommendation she use an inhaler to ease the shortness of breath that had brought on the attack.

Together, the students, the ER doc (in reality an instructor for a 10-year-old medical education program called MEDscience), and Bettie (MEDscience’s executive director, Julie Joyal) encouraged and guided the students toward an appropriate diagnosis: heart attack due to a blocked coronary artery.

By the end of the hourlong simulation, Bettie was off to get a catherization that would ease the blockage that was robbing her heart muscle of blood and oxygen, and the students had a much better idea of a heart attack’s lesser-known symptoms and how a heart catheterization works.

“I really didn’t know what to expect … but it feels like real life,” said Maria Peterlin, a student at Boston Latin Academy with an interest in psychiatry. “It has definitely opened my eyes.”

For the last decade, Harvard Medical School’s MEDscience program has offered high school students a hands-on, case-based curriculum that covers the basic biology and clinical science needed to diagnose and treat a series of ailments. Along the way, it provides students with something of a tour of what can go wrong in the human body — heart attack, diabetes, addiction — as well as a glimpse of the power of modern medicine and the process through which it is wielded.

During the school year, HMS staff work with 40 high schools that have incorporated a MEDscience-designed program into their biology classes. The regular classroom instructors provide some 2,000 students with the basic scientific background every week before Joyal and Fiona Kennedy and Livia Rizzo present the hands-on cases, welcoming them to a mock examining room at HMS and introducing them to the stand-in posing as the patient.

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