Grand Rapids — Third-grader Alfredo Rajas examined clues to why people were falling ill with respiratory symptoms in Milwaukee and Chicago.
“Fifteen people have been visiting the emergency room and have been having trouble breathing lately,” he said, catching on quickly to the role of a health investigator. “They have fevers and other stuff that make them feel really bad.”
Brandi Berry, program supervisor for the Kent County Health Department, explained what that could mean.
“When you have more than three people with the same symptoms, you have the potential for an outbreak,” she said.
A group of Stocking Elementary students were playing a game with Berry to introduce them to careers in public health, one of several health care fields they are learning about this school year as part of Pathways to Healthcare Careers, a program offered by the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
The game, Solve the Outbreak, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, presents information and clues, and demonstrates how “disease detectives” investigate outbreaks.
“The Health Department helps everybody,” Berry told students. “We make sure that you have clean water, that the air is good. We make sure everybody gets their shots and that you’re healthy.”
‘We want students to see themselves in the doctor’s coat.’— Stacey Baker, program coordinator for Grand Rapids African American Health Institute
But, she explained, some things that affect people’s health, like COVID-19, require investigation because they are dangerous. That is the role of a health investigator.
“Outbreaks happen in the world. We just had an outbreak – COVID. When something like that happens it can be very dangerous. We don’t want outbreaks.”
Many Careers to Choose From
Students spend an hour every Monday in Pathways and have learned about occupational therapy, phlebotomy, dietetics and nursing by meeting professionals and getting to see and touch equipment.
The goal is to expose children of color to health care careers while helping boost their academics, said Stacey Baker, program coordinator for GRAAHI.
“We want students to see themselves in the doctor’s coat or in the shoes of other health care professionals,” Baker said. “We want them to see a variety of health care occupations to grow and expand their knowledge base.”
People of color are drastically under-represented within the health care field, he said. According to 2017 and 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, whites make up the majority of the U.S. medical workforce, at 64.4 percent; compared to Hispanics, at 16.1 percent; Blacks or African Americans, at 11.6 percent; and Asians, at 5.3 percent.
Having people of color in health care professions improves outcomes as well, Baker said. “Studies have found that when patients of color see health care workers of color they tend to do better in terms of their health overall.”
Pathways pairs academic tutoring in reading and math — through Sylvan Learning — with the career presentations, equipping students with academic skills to eventually pursue careers. Baker said that’s an important piece to the program.
“They need to be academically proficient in terms of the sciences.”
The program is also offered at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy, a middle and high school, and Ottawa Hills High School. Along with seeing health care professionals in action, the high school program involves tours of college campuses and program visits.
Inspiring Young People
By using their sleuthing skills in the game, Stocking students figured out that the outbreak was caused by anthrax. A musician who visited Africa had returned with the deadly bacteria on his drums. When he played at a concert in Chicago, beating the drums caused the anthrax spores to disperse in the air and infect the audience.
Alfredo enjoyed the investigation and said he’d like to be a health investigator one day.
“The research — you get to find out clues — it’s like a scavenger hunt,” he said. “I want to keep the community safe and I don’t want anyone to get a bad illness.”