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A health care camp in Tampa gives these teens a glimpse into their future careers

Teenagers crowd around a mannequin of a newborn baby and practice swaddling it.
Stephanie Colombini
As part of the career camp at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, teens learned how to swaddle newborns by practicing on mannequins and then competed in a relay to see who could do it the fastest.

The three-day camp offers high schoolers a look at the life of nurses, surgeons, therapists and other jobs in the hopes of inspiring future health workers.

Summer can be a time for teens to hit the pool with their friends, take a family vacation — or scroll for even more hours than usual on their cellphones. But some teens in the Tampa Bay region are spending part of their time off from school focusing on their careers.

A group of 25 rising ninth- and 10th-graders spent this week attending a summer camp for aspiring health workers at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.

During the three-day camp, which wraps up on Thursday, teens have toured operating rooms, imaging labs and ambulances.

Nurses and other health professionals are giving them hands-on experience with skills like putting on sterile gowns and gloves, and clamping and cutting umbilical cords (artificial ones, of course).

“It’s not easy, huh?,” nurse Heather Filicko joked with one girl as she helped her put on a glove without breaking what’s known as the sterile field, or an area free from contaminants. That required ensuring her bare skin never touched the outside of the glove.

Teenage girl stands with her arms up as a surgical technician in scrubs helps her dress in a protective gown.
Stephanie Colombini
Surgical tech Carol Sumner (left) and nurse Heather Filicko (third from left) help students don sterile gowns and gloves to get a sense of what it's like preparing for surgery.

In another exercise, teens laughed and cheered their way through a relay to see which group could swaddle mannequins of newborns the fastest. Some diapers and plastic limbs may have fallen off along the way before a victor was crowned.

Giving teens a glimpse of life in health care

Students like Sophia Fulkroad relished the opportunity to learn.

“I really wanted to come because I’ve always had an interest in the medical field and helping people,” said Sophia, 14, who added her favorite TV show as a young child was “Doc McStuffins," a cartoon about a girl who plays doctor to her stuffed animals.

Health issues, like a knee injury Sophia sustained in ballet, have forced her to spend more time in hospitals than most kids her age, she said. The experience has inspired her to pursue a career in health care.

“I just want to provide some relief and comfort to other people as my doctors have to me,” Sophia said.

girl stands in front of hospital room
Stephanie Colombini
Sophia Fulkroad, 14, said she's been interested in the medical field since she was a young girl watching the cartoon character "Doc McStuffins" take care of toys on TV.

With a shortage of health workers in Florida and nationally, it's important to inspire a new generation to meet the need, said Melissa Menke, who runs the program.

“Everybody needs health care workers in all areas and subspecialties, so we are looking at this as an investment for us, too. We're spending time with these kids, getting to know them, hoping to get them thinking about what they want to be and then maybe encouraging them to come back to us,” said Menke, a regional manager of clinical professional practice for BayCare, the health system that owns the hospital.

The camp can put kids who want to work in health care on paths to success early, she added, while also giving other teens a chance to realize it’s not what they want to do before they commit a lot of time and money pursuing it.

“So we really want to just give them as many opportunities to see what they can, ask us questions and fuel their minds a little bit with what the possibilities could be for them,” Menke said.

Woman addresses classroom of teenagers.
Stephanie Colombini
Melissa Menke addresses a group of 25 high schoolers during the career camp at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. Kids attended sessions on topics such as pediatrics, pharmacy and radiology.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Students peppered health workers with questions about their jobs, asking them about rewarding moments, but also about the not-so-fun parts — does it get hot wearing all that personal protective equipment during surgery? Or have they ever gotten sprayed with bodily fluids?

Surgical technician Carol Sumner obliged, sharing with a group of teens that fluid had indeed splashed past the protective barriers of her gown in some instances.

“Eww!” one girl squealed before another asked, “Did you have to go shower?”

“Oh, yeah,” laughed Sumner, “Would you want that on you for 10 more hours?”

Getting a glimpse of nursing life is what drew Ella Claire Milligan to travel from Lakeland for the camp.

“It's really exciting. I love it,” she beamed.

Teenage girl stands in front of a hospital room wearing a surgical gown
Stephanie Colombini
Ella Claire Milligan, 15, wants to become a nurse and said she was excited to get the chance to ask professionals questions about life on the job.

Nursing is a family affair for Ella, 15, who said her grandmother was a nurse for 40 years on a neonatal intensive care unit. She may also want to work with babies, but she’s not sure, which is why she likes learning about a variety of roles at the camp.

“I'll get to see what fields I think I would be interested in and then some other parts of nursing I might not want to do,” Milligan said. “So it's just a cool experience to get to do while I still have options.”

The camp is in its second year and costs $50 to attend.

Students get tips on applying for jobs and learn what it takes to get hired in different health roles, from entry-level that don't require college degrees to specialties that involve years of schooling.

A group of teenage girls kneel around a therapy dog and pet her.
Stephanie Colombini
Pet therapy dog Diva helped break up some of the serious talks about hospital careers for teens attending the three-day camp at St. Joseph's Hospital.

It's a lot for a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds to take in, especially on summer break. Fortunately, some emotional support was on hand: pet therapy dogs like Diva, a Rottweiler who, along with her handler Karen Giardinelli, volunteers at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital.

“She was super cool; she was like all over everybody, and she seemed like she was having the most fun,” said Gerardo Parrillo, who came to the camp from Land O’ Lakes to get a better sense of what health field he may want to enter.

Teens excitedly crowded around Parrillo, 15, as Diva gave him a high-five with her paw and snuggled up for more pets.

This may be some students’ last chance to enjoy the camp due to the age limits, but organizers encouraged them to stay connected with the hospital. They can apply to be volunteers or request to shadow shifts in specific departments.

Teenage boy kneels down next to a therapy dog and pets her.
Stephanie Colombini
Gerardo Parrillo, 15, bonded with pet therapy dog Diva, who visited students during the career camp at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Disclaimer: St. Joseph’s Hospital is run by BayCare, which is a sponsor of WUSF. 

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.