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Hands-on robotics experience sparks students interest in health care

How does unwrapping a Starburst wrapper relate to robotic surgery? It doesn't at first glance, but for a group of 25 students from Thomas Jefferson High School and Evergreen Middle School, bringing those two experiences together ignited a sense of wonder and helped them see themselves in a surgeon's shoes. 

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH) recently hosted a Thoracic Oncology Robotic Surgery event for students and practicing physicians alike to have a hands-on experience and exclusive look at two robotic devices used to help transform cancer care. The devices included diagnostic tools and surgical robotic systems used to treat lung and esophageal conditions.

Attendees were also given the opportunity to talk with leading VMFH providers such as Dr. Steve Kirtland, Dr. Joel Sternbach, Dr. Michal Hubka, and Dr. Luke Seaburg. To make things more interesting, the event and experience all took place on an 18-wheel mobile surgical unit. 

The students, many involved with a program Build 2 Lead, packed into the mobile unit to learn all about robots used by VMFH health care professionals. Students tested out the robots and performed their own “procedures” including unwrapping candies. The students also learned about robotics used for CT scans and lung biopsies.

VMFH has a history working alongside and supporting Build 2 Lead, an organization aimed at empowering, engaging and educating young people – in partnership with their families and communities – so they can advocate to change the systems that have historically limited them. 

Najmah Messiah, a radiology manager, and co-chair of the Momentum & Belonging group at VMFH, was key in coordinating the field trip with Build 2 Lead. She fell in love with Build 2 Lead’s mission and was eager to connect students to health care professionals.

“We know we need more black and brown health care professionals,” noted Messiah. “Connecting these students with professionals and providing this hands-on experience, gives them a glimpse into health care. Our BIPOC students need to see that this is something they can do.” 

Some students in the group expressed interest in a future career in health care.

“Seeing how they do this regularly and when they talked about it … I thought it was honestly really cool,” said Jazmine Osorio, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School. “I really had fun and it was a learning experience.”  

Osorio shared she is thinking about a career in medicine and wants to help children. 

VMFH performs the most robotic lung resection procedures (removing a portion of a diseased lung) of any health system in the Pacific Northwest. The use of robotic devices like those shared at the mobile event reduces the average length of stay for patients by as much as two days compared to a non-robotic surgery. Additionally, the time between biopsy to treatment when using these same robotic devices is 10 days faster than the national average.