From holding a newborn baby to observing a complex heart surgery, many seniors at Ralston High School have gotten a closer look at what it means to work in the health care industry.

The program that gives them that experience is the Ralston Medical Academy, which is in its sixth year. This year, 16 seniors took part in the program at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha, and 18 juniors are enrolled for next year.

“This is like an extension of the classroom,” said Deb Ziegler, RHS teacher and nurse responsible for setting up the Ralston Medical Academy. “This is a learning lab like no other.”

During their time at Bergan Mercy, students go through 16 rotations in departments such as radiation, oncology, the neonatal intensive care unit and surgery, giving them real-world experience.

Students involved with the Ralston Medical Academy apply to the program as sophomores. As juniors, students get their CNA certification, or certified nursing assistant certification, and take an anatomy class. Seniors will work for several months at Papillion Manor Nursing Home, where they can help care for residents and prepare for the fast-paced hospital setting at Bergan Mercy, which they begin in November.

“There’s not very many seniors in high school that have the opportunities that these kids have,” Ziegler said.

Before the program at Bergan Mercy Medical Center, RHS had partnered with Papillion-La Vista High School for a similar program at Midlands Hospital in Papillion. After deciding RHS should branch out on its own, Ziegler developed a partnership with Bergan Mercy, which was looking for ways to reach out to local schools.

Senior Adele Bourke’s favorite rotation has been working with babies in the postpartum unit, where babies are cared for soon after birth. Although she came into the program considering a career as a physical therapist, she’s now considering a career in nursing.

So far, Bourke said, all the nurses and doctors she’s worked with have been very helpful, and students feel free to ask questions.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t know,” Bourke said.

Aubri Mitchem, who was also working the postpartum unit, was surprised by just how much experience she and other students have been given at Bergan Mercy.

“I think it’s more than what I expected,” Mitchem said. “I didn’t expect to see as much as I do.”

Ziegler estimates that up to 80 percent of her students who take part in the Ralston Medical Academy will go on to careers in the medical field. All of them already have a CNA certification, but others will go on to other health care careers.

No matter what her students do after graduation, Ziegler believes this program gives her students an informative look at the health care industry.

“If nothing else, I think this experience will make them a better consumer of health care,” Ziegler said.

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