'How's your cholesterol?' - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

'How's your cholesterol?'

Students in medical lab assisting class offer real blood tests

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Posted: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 11:00 pm

The table in front of Paul Ellwood held gauze, bandages and alcohol swabs.

A white-coated woman rubbed Ellwood's fingertip vigorously as she engaged him in conversation.

"Do you know your cholesterol levels?" she asked, drawing the man's attention away from the fact that she was about to draw his blood.

"No," Ellwood said, and then it was over. A handheld computer suddenly held a sample of the blood, and the white-coated woman held a piece of gauze to the pricked finger while smoothly continuing her end of the conversation.

It was easy to forget she — Robin O'Neal — was in high school.

Students in the medical lab assisting class at Mountain View High School know how to extract blood from a finger. They've practiced on themselves and on their classmates. They've extracted the stuff to test for red blood cells, hemoglobin levels and cholesterol. If you ask them if succeeding in Rosemarie Prater’s class is like drawing your own blood, they'd probably say, "Yes, it’s exactly like that."

But until last week, they hadn't practiced on the public.

On the morning of Friday, April 3, parents, faculty and staff began trickling into a Mountain ViewHigh School lab for lipid tests.

The volunteers, who had fasted 12 hours in preparation, were there to find out their cholesterol levels. They were also there to provide the students with the first real-life hands-on lab testing experience in the six-year history of the school's medical lab assisting program.

"Hospitals are very reluctant to have them come in because they’re not yet 18," Prater said. "So I decided to do my own work-based experience."

The program is in part a response to a shortage in Tucson of lab professionals, Prater said. Students learn about the field early and acquire proficiency at many real-life tasks.

But to get noticed on resumes, they must show some experience, which is difficult in a field full of lawsuit worries and privacy issues.

"This is all about helping kids make those connections," said Nancy Funk, the school's internship facilitator, who had her own blood drawn at the lipid testing event.

Funk has helped place at least six of Prater's current students in internships. But the school would like to form more partnerships with people in the medical lab business.

In the meantime, the school lab makes for a convincing medical environment. The chairs have swivel arm rests for taking blood samples. There are eye charts on a wall, white divider screens and even IV bags that look like they’re full of blood.

In the beginning medical lab assisting class, students strap fake arms onto their real arms, and their peers try to hit fake veins with real needles. When they succeed, fake blood flows from IVs.

The students have done urinalysis with fake urine, too. And on occasion, they've used the real stuff.

"I get quite a reaction when they have to pee in a cup," Prater said.

The students have even put stitches into pigs' feet, which look surprisingly similar to human flesh.

O'Neal, a senior who showed her familiarity with blood tests by conversing casually with Ellwood on April 3 as she performed his, said her favorite experience in class was when she got to look at her blood through a microscope.

"By looking at the size, color and shape, you could see if you had certain diseases," she said.

O'Neal is taking Prater's medical lab assisting course in preparation for a nursing career. Twice a week, three hours each time, she attends an evening nursing program offered in connection with her school.

Upon successful completion of the program, she said she will qualify to be a nursing assistant or a caregiver. If she lands a job in a nursing home, chances are good, she said, that her employer will pay for further schooling.

"I’ve always known I would be a nurse," she said.

She just didn't know she'd have so much help from her high school.

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