"Who Wants to See a Brain?”
Washington Heights Middle School Students Visit TouroCOM Harlem
“Who wants to see brains? Lungs?” Dr. Sushama Vallabhajosyula Rich called out, a question to which a remarkable number of hands answered by shooting up into the air.
Brains and other assorted organs were the main attraction for the roughly 60 pre-teens that visited TouroCOM Harlem from KIPP: Washington Heights Middle School on May 25. And though squishy and slimy organs were the draw, there was an ulterior motive to the visit.
“We’re trying to get them interested in medicine,” laughed Dr. Rich, who has helped organize middle school visits since she arrived at TouroCOM Harlem ten years ago. “One of our missions is to promote science and medicine and help underserved communities learn more about medicine.”
KIPP fifth grade teacher Vanessa Nixon said that the visits allowed her students to envision themselves as medical students.
“We’re exposing them at an early age to what they can become,” she said. “How can you be something you can’t see?”
Adrian Reyes, a student at KIPP, said he planned on becoming a security guard like his father, but wanted to see a brain.
“I want to see how it works,” he said.
Three graduates of the TouroCOM Master’s program—Sheila Fields, Bart Wilder and Sabreen Abdullah—talked with the middle school students about medical school. The three will be first-year DO students next year.
“It’s important to give back,” said Sheila Fields. “We need to show these kids that a career in medicine is possible.”
Showing middle school students the possibility of a career in medicine was especially important to Wilder.
“I didn’t know any doctors or lawyers growing up,” he said. “I didn’t know the difference between graduate school and medical school. If I had known more about medicine it would’ve helped.”
After a brief introduction to TouroCOM’s mission and snacks, the middle school students were given a tour of the TouroCOM facility before donning latex gloves and visiting the trip’s highlight: TouroCOM’s anatomy lab.
At the lab, students cycled through different stations manned by TouroCOM professors and students each examining a different piece of anatomy, ranging from a jawbone preserved in formaldehyde to a full cadaver.
“Our aim is to get minority students into medical school and become physicians and then go back to help in their own underserved communities,” said TouroCOM’s Dr. Carlos Quinteros who showed off a leathery heart and spoke to his enrapt group about the importance of eating healthy.
TouroCOM’s Nicholas Vanterpool showed students a skeleton before opening up a body bag to gasps. “As future doctors, your job is to save the next human life,” he said. (“Anyone watch scary movies?” He said before showing off his dissecting tools.)
TouroCOM Professor Baez led the middle schoolers in a chant about the levels of brain matter. They repeated the terms after her before she flipped over a dark pink brain to show off the cerebellum. “It feels like a swimming cap,” she told them while picking up a thin mat of brain matter.
Well-spoken KIPP student Johan Valasquez called the visit “intriguing.”
“I used to have some doubts about medicine but I think it’s kinda fun now,” said Valasquez. “I learned you can see if a person had diabetes by looking at their foot.”
KIPP parent Raymond Abinader, who helped chaperone the event, said he hoped every school would start something like this. “It opens their minds to their possibilities.”
Future brain surgeon Zoey Ford of Harlem held her first brain during the visit. “It was grey and squishy,” she said.
Reyes also managed to see and hold a brain. Though he still thought he would become a security guard, he was open to the possibilities of working in medicine.