The LifeGuard 10 crew with the students in the Medical Explorers Club at Hidden Valley High School. Photo by Shae Torrence.
The LifeGuard 10 crew with the students in the Medical Explorers Club at Hidden Valley High School. Photo by Shae Torrence.

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If extracurricular activities such as playing sports and joining the debate team can jazz up a high school resume, imagine what getting a helicopter to land on the football field can do.

That’s exactly what Kaylee Hagadorn and Sarah Arner, both students at Roanoke County’s Hidden Valley High School, did in November, in their roles as co-presidents of the Medical Explorers Club, which offers an opportunity for its members to learn about careers in health care.

According to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the supply of health care workers in all fields will increase by 5% from 2020 to 2025, while demand will increase by 13%. But this is not just a problem for the future. As recently as 2020, there were nearly 300 fewer health care workers in Virginia than were needed.

“We have an aging population,” said Cynthia Lawrence, director of workforce development at Roanoke-based Carilion Clinic. Paired with “a post-millennial demographic drop-off, there will be more people needing care and a smaller pool to provide it.” [Disclosure: Carilion is one of our approximately 2,500 donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

The Medical Explorers Club with the helicopter. Photo by Shae Torrence.
The Medical Explorers Club with the helicopter. Photo by Shae Torrence.

Offering tours of a medical helicopter may be just the thing to draw young people into the field. Sarah said so many students were interested in the event that organizers had to limit attendance to club members only. And as far as pulling the feat off went, it doesn’t hurt that Sarah’s father, Steve Arner, is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Carilion Clinic, which has the largest helicopter medical transport service in Southwest Virginia.

The club meets twice a month to hear from medical professionals, and every few months, there is a special program, such as the helicopter demonstration. In February, club members were given a tour of an ambulance by David Danco and Jon Riggins, volunteer EMTs with the Cave Spring Rescue Squad.

Danco discussed education requirements and salaries with the nearly two dozen attendees. He gave them an idea of what a typical shift is like and outlined job opportunities available to a trained EMT. “It’s a good entry point to the medical profession,” he said.

Kaylee Hagadorn. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach.
Kaylee Hagadorn. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach.

Kaylee, an 11th grader who organized the group at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, set up the ambulance tour. There are about 35 members in the club, she said, with about 25 showing up for each meeting. All are thinking about careers in the medical field.

“It’s one of the biggest groups at the school,” which has an enrollment of about 850 students, said Nathan Hunt, the club’s sponsor. He teaches business classes and also sponsors the DECA club, which emphasizes leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

In addition to her regular school day, Kaylee belongs to DECA, is on the swim team and works as an EMT with the Cave Spring Rescue Squad, taking one 12- to 24-hour shift a week.

She said she’s wanted to work in the medical field ever since she was little.

Sara Arner. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach.
Sarah Arner. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach.

“I try to do anything I can to get more experience,” she said. Although her father is a doctor, when she decided to become an EMT, she said, her parents were hesitant.  “But now it’s OK. They know I enjoy it.”

Kaylee hopes to become a physician’s assistant, but said, “I didn’t even know that was a thing,” until she started the club.

Sarah is in the 12th grade. She will finish high school a year early, and besides being in DECA, she does cross country and track. She’s wanted to be an optometrist since she was 12, after hearing a presentation from an optometrist, even though she said her own vision is perfect. Her grandfather was a physician, she said, and she has been offered early acceptance at Brigham Young University.

Aayush Patel. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach
Aayush Patel. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach

Club member Aayush Patel is in the 11th grade and is also in DECA. He plays soccer and wants to be a dentist.

“I’ve always wanted to go into the medical field,” he explained. “Dentistry is interesting, and there’s a lot of problem-solving.”

His father is a physician in the emergency department at LewisGale Medical Center in Salem, he said, and although he hasn’t pushed a medical career, “he’s encouraged it.”

Shae Torrence. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach
Shae Torrence. Photo by Betsy Biesenbach

Shae Torrence, an 11th grader, is also in DECA and plays volleyball. In addition, she is the president and founder of the school’s photography club. After taking photos for her friends in the Medical Explorers Club, she decided to join. Her mother is a registered nurse, she said, and Shae has spent a lot of time hanging out in the office where she works. Shae is interested in childhood trauma and would like to become a psychiatrist.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the medical field,” observed Chuck Lionberger, director of community relations for Roanoke County Public Schools — including in technical fields such as cybersecurity, mechatronics and specialized HVAC installation and maintenance for hospitals. Similar programs have been held at the county’s Burton Center for Arts and Technology, which houses the system’s vocational education classes, he said.

Lionberger said the school system has been working with the Blue Ridge Partnership for Health Science Careers, a collaborative organization for educators, employers and economic development professionals in the Roanoke and New River valleys, the Alleghany Highlands and the greater Lynchburg region. The organization recently held a workshop for guidance counselors to teach them how to steer students toward health care professions, which Roanoke County schools participated in, Lionberger said.

Lawrence is also founding executive officer of the partnership. According to the group’s website, its aim is to improve health sciences education and align instruction in public and post-secondary schools to meet the workforce needs of the region’s health employers. It advertises itself as “your one-stop shop for information about navigating a career in the health sciences.”

Members of the partnership include the three acute care centers in GO Virginia Region 2 — the New River-to-Lynchburg region that is part of a statewide organization that encourages cooperation to further economic development — as well as five long-term care facilities, a home care company and Freedom First Federal Credit Union.

“They have a commitment to this region for workforce development,” Lawrence said about the bank’s participation.

The partnership, which was founded in 2019 and has 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, receives funding from the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation and the commonwealth of Virginia, as well as through a variety of grants. It operates as a resource for the 17 school districts in the region, as well as public and private institutions for higher learning. It also offers scholarships for post-secondary students.

“We want to make sure the courses [the schools offer] are rigorous enough to meet the needs of our organizations,” Lawrence said, and even though many of the member entities are technically competitors, “we work very well together. We realize [the partnership] increases employment for the entire region.” It’s an important goal, she said, since 38% of registered nurses who graduate in Virginia take jobs out of state. “We really want them to stay in the region.”

In the future, Lawrence said, the partnership hopes to work with the Virginia Department of Education to establish a core curriculum to be used in health care career education throughout the state.

“The greatest value of the Blue Ridge Partnership for Health Science Careers has been getting people around the table to discuss these needs and opportunities and to come up with solutions to enact them,” Lawrence said. As far as she knows, the partnership is “unique” to Virginia. “No one else has pulled together a collaborative approach like this.”

Programs include everything from mobile health science labs and science and career fairs to lesson plans about germs and physical fitness aimed at children as young as kindergartners, in an effort to encourage students to begin thinking about health care careers as soon as possible.

“The earlier, the better,” Lawrence said. “This is an entire ecosystem. It’s not just about bedside care.”   

Lawrence said she doesn’t know of anything like the Medical Explorers Club, which was initiated by the students themselves, in any other part of the region. But she said if the club needed resources, the partnership is there to help.

Kaylee said the students began the club because although they could easily research health care careers online, “having people come in person and being able to ask them questions provided valuable insight.”

She said the students had to formulate a plan for what they wanted to do, find a sponsor and then promote the club. Their experience with DECA made that part easier, she said. They made flyers, included information in the school’s morning announcements and set up an Instagram account.

“It was something we felt was important to our peers,” Aayush said. In fact, he said, a friend of his who came to the helicopter tour event wasn’t even thinking about a career in the health professions but changed his mind after seeing the demonstration.

As with everything else in their young lives, the students’ plans for the future were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in the middle of their freshman year.

Lionberger explained that Roanoke County schools operated on a different plan than most other systems. Students could choose to stay home, or they could attend in a hybrid setting, which offered two days of in-school instruction and three virtual days per week.  

Kaylee and Shae stayed home.

“The hard part was the disconnect with friends,” Kaylee said.

“My mom made me stay home because of my asthma,” Shae said. “It was a lot to keep in my head,” she admitted about doing school at home. “I need to be in class for it to really sink in. Being with other kids is important.”

Aayush and Sarah chose the hybrid system.

“I found it was easy for me to get it done,” Sarah said. “I learned more because maybe there was less busywork.”

“It would have been harder if we were younger,” Aayush observed. But all the students interviewed agreed that they have more or less caught up with their grade level by this time.

An upside to the disruption was that when they came back to school full time, the seniors, who usually run all of the clubs, were too busy to do it this year, Kaylee said.

“It was a good opportunity to get involved.”

Another upside, she said, is that many colleges are no longer requiring standardized tests for admission.

Kaylee said she was contacted by students at the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School who wanted to start their own club, but according to a school spokesperson, a club never materialized.

She said that while she acknowledges that operating this type of club is easier when members are so close to and have so many connections with the medical community, students who live in more remote areas could do something similar with virtual visits from a variety of healthcare professionals.

Lawrence agreed. A big part of the partnership’s mission, she said, is to bring healthcare and healthcare education to the more remote parts of the state.

“We’re looking to create a workforce to deliver care in a different way,” she said.

Betsy Biesenbach is a writer based in Roanoke. She is the author of ""Say My Name: The Story of Amanda...