Mayra Dawkins found her calling as a teenage intern at Colorado Children’s Hospital, struck by the bonds between doctors and nurses and their young patients.

Now, as a urology nurse on the staff at the children’s hospital, she seeks to create the same sense of connection – with a soft spot for children like her, from Spanish-speaking families, for whom hospitals and doctor’s offices can seem overwhelming and confusing.

“I see these families and feel like they are like my family,” said Dawkins, who participated in the Hospital System’s Collaborative Medical Careers Program in 2010 and 2011 while a student at Overland High School in Aurora.

The program – now in its 22nd year – has helped hundreds of young people like Dawkins explore careers in healthcare, including many students of color who grew up speaking Spanish at home and who may not have. never thought that a job in the health care field was realistic. option.

Bringing more Hispanics into Colorado hospital rooms has only become more critical in the past 19 months, as the pandemic has disproportionately affected the state’s population of over 1.25 million. Latino residents and highlighted the “glaring inequalities facing the Hispanic Latin American community,” said Dr. Lilia Cervantes, associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Colorado Medical Campus at Anschutz. the first seven months of the pandemic in Denver, Hispanic residents has seen the highest number of adult cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Colorado hospitals don’t have to look very far to find more people of color to draw into the health care pipeline, she said. With many Latino children more likely to stay long-term in the state their families call home, Cervantes emphasizes the need to bolster the state’s future healthcare workforce with its own students. That’s the central goal of the Medical Career Collaborative program, which annually accepts about 40 Denver-area students and sets them on a path to learn more about jobs in healthcare and ultimately connects them to a paid hospital internship.

The program, launched in 1999, is primarily aimed at attracting students of color and students from low-income homes and helping them launch promising careers in health care. Since the program began, more than 90 participants have secured healthcare jobs at Children’s Hospital Colorado – as physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, clinical assistants, radiology technologists, laboratory scientists, workers social workers, respiratory therapists, medical interpreters and other positions, said Stacey Whiteside, director of experience and engagement at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“We believe that a workforce that represents the communities we serve will be an even more effective team,” said Whiteside, as diversity helps create better patient outcomes. Families living in poverty or facing housing insecurity, for example, face significant challenges in obtaining consistent health care and medicines.

A healthcare worker who grew up with the same types of struggles has a better understanding of the extent of the help he needs, Whiteside said.

“It gives you an awareness of what the family in front of you might be going through, and you may be able to tailor your care plan to meet the unique needs of that family,” she said.

Language is a factor in meeting the needs of patients and putting them at ease, Cervantes said. Spanish-speaking families in need of healthcare often light up when greeted by a doctor or nurse who shares their language. This is something she has seen as she takes care of her own patients as they relax, relieved to be able to ask questions and understand what comes next.

“It just gives a feeling of comfort and ease… to be able to communicate with your clinician in the language that works best for them,” said Cervantes, especially as patients find themselves in a vulnerable state while in hospital.

About 17% of Coloradans speak a language other than English at home, and 11.4% of Coloradans speak Spanish at home, according to estimates from the 2019 American Community Survey of the US Census. And about a third of these Spanish speakers report speaking less than “very good” English.

The difficulties in accessing quality care that Dawkins encountered as a child in a family whose mother tongue was Spanish have stayed with her and motivated her to provide a better experience for her patients.

Dawkins, 28, didn’t originally see herself working in a hospital, in part because no one in her family had had a career in healthcare and therefore she grew up not really exposed to the possibilities. employment. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and although her mother graduated from GED, her father did not complete high school. After Dawkins’ second-year science teacher encouraged her to consider the program and apply, the course of her life changed completely, she said. She turned her attention from wanting to help people as an immigration lawyer to wanting to help patients recover.

As an intern in the program, Dawkins worked in an inpatient unit, matching nurses, certified practical nurses, physicians and other providers. She was blown away by how the staff developed close relationships with their young patients while caring for them.

“What can be such a scary time for families, you can be a part of it in such a positive way,” Dawkins said.

Registered Urology Nurse Mayra Dawkins and MC² graduate poses for a portrait on Tuesday, October 12, 2021 at the Colorado Children’s Hospital in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

An experience during her internship marked her over the past 10 years. She remembers treating a red-haired boy with blue eyes – only 2 or 3 at the time – alongside a NAC while his parents were out. Comforting him during “a really stressful time and a really scary time” impacted Dawkins and helped her see the meaningful way in which she could uplift patients.

She has now worked full time at the Colorado Children’s Hospital for eight years, the last four and a half years at the Urology Clinic with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. She also served as vice chair of the board of directors of the Medical Career Collaborative program – which she attributes not only to the healthcare orientation, but also to continuing her support as she sailed through the university and applied for new positions throughout his career.

“I don’t know what I would have done without it, really,” Dawkins said.

Preparing students for college and other post-secondary programs is a key part of the internship, said Whiteside. The Medical Career Collaborative program app mimics a college app so students can practice submitting a transcript, letter of recommendation, and essays within a specified time frame. Students entering the second year of the program in their final year receive more intensive support with college and professional coaching and help writing and completing college and scholarship applications.

The first year of the program focuses more on educating students about the many areas they can explore. Students embark on field trips, workshops and training, Whiteside said, with visits to the hospital system’s pathology lab, a first aid course and a day spent with emergency medical professionals . A paid internship complements their learning experience, with students placed in departments within the hospital to observe clinical staff, store supplies, prepare patient rooms, work on data entry, and handle other tasks. basic.

As juniors and seniors identify interests to pursue beyond high school, “we want to influence that,” Whiteside said.

She added that the need for a local program focused on developing the next generation of healthcare workers has grown more important as many current employees suffered burnout during the pandemic.

One of the students enrolled in the program this year is Ashley Esparza, doing an internship in the hospital system’s pharmacy department, helping to dispose of expired medications and stocking trays of medication for the emergency department. Esparza, a junior at York International School in Thornton, does internships four hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays and attends weekly seminars where she learns medical terminology, different types of healthcare jobs and how to interact with patients.

The program piqued the 16-year-old’s interest in becoming a pediatrician or pharmacist and showed her how many bilingual students like her are needed in Colorado’s healthcare systems.

Ashley Esparza, a junior at York International and intern in the Medical Career Collaborative program poses for a portrait on Monday, October 11, 2021 in Thornton. The Medical Career Collaborative program directs high school students to health-related careers and lasts for two years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“With the language barrier it makes things more difficult,” Esparza said, especially when it comes to explaining medical terminology to a family.

She’s already stepped in to help translate. In addition to helping translate words or mail for family members, Esparza took the time to get her second COVID-19 vaccine at a Walgreens store to help a woman who was struggling to take the correct medicine. Esparza left smiling “just happy to know that I helped someone because I knew two languages”.

Introducing more students like Esparza to healthcare should be a state priority, said Cervantes, of the University of Colorado medical campus at Anschutz. Cervantes is frustrated that Latino Colorado residents continue to struggle with quality health care at a time when many have risked their lives on the front lines in essential jobs.

“I believe that as a country we need to do better to reduce inequalities in health, and one way to address the disparities is to ensure that our physician workforce reflects the demographics of the patients we serve,” said said Cervantes. “And in Colorado, a particularly vulnerable patient population is the Latino community and especially those with limited English proficiency. We can treat them better if we reduce language barriers.

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