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Life Is Full of Adventures

Spring 2008

By Deborah Aranda

Catch a glimpse of the Health Adventures program in action. In this video, children visit M. D. Anderson’s Rehabilitation Services to experience first-hand the challenges patients face while living with cancer. By Deborah E. Thomas. Watch the video now!

“I’m clear! Are you clear? Is everybody clear?” Frederik Diaz yells.

With an audience keeping a watchful eye on his every move, Frederik grabs the nearest Emergency Assist Device and prepares to shock Annie back to life.

Hearing the heart monitor beep at a steady pace reassures Frederik that Annie is going to be all right. Had this been a real-life emergency and Annie been a real person, 10-year-old Frederik may well have saved a life.

This scenario is one of many situations students participating in the Health Adventures program at M. D. Anderson find themselves in.

For the past 11 years, M. D. Anderson’s Department of Volunteer Services has hosted the program through a collaboration with Communities in Schools, a national organization aimed at preventing children from dropping out of school and introducing them to careers in health care.

The Junior League of Houston, Inc. funds the nine-month program, which pairs 18 elementary students with an adult volunteer mentor. Nine students are selected from both Houston’s Bastian Elementary and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) 3D Academy.

Weekend adventures

One Saturday every month, fourth- and fifth-graders get together to learn everything from how to package medicine to what goes on in the operating room.

On one spring morning, Tejpal Grover, M.D., let Frederik and other students play doctor, teaching them what to do in emergency situations.

Paddles in hand, Frederik Diaz attempts to bring “Annie” back to life.

Though it’s just role-playing, he believes students can appreciate a learning environment outside of their typical classroom setting. Students not only see the doctor’s perspective, but they also see things from a patient’s viewpoint.

“It’s just fun to teach them something that they haven’t learned before,” says Grover, who is an associate professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of General Internal Medicine, Ambulatory Treatment and Emergency Care.

After hours of emergency training, the students gathered with friends and mentors and discussed the morning’s lessons.

For Frederik, a fifth-grader from KIPP 3D, the experience has been one of inspiration as he develops an interest in pursuing a career in the medical field.

“I want to be a doctor so I can take care of people who are going through emergencies,” he says enthusiastically.

Coming into their own

Brittany Cisneros (right) gets her blood pressure
checked as Alondra Ortiz waits her turn.

Cindy Shursen, Health Adventures program coordinator at M. D. Anderson, has seen how students have flourished in the program, which was initiated by the American Society of Directors of Volunteer Services in 1996, and is now offered in hospitals throughout the United States.

“The kids really come out of their shells,” she says. “Some of the kids that come in are really shy at first, then as they progress through the program, they begin asking questions and volunteering for participation.”

The program is a good fit for students who have an interest in the medical field, but also for those who may be having trouble academically, Shursen says.

During the school year, students are introduced to different areas throughout the hospital and have a day of activities planned for each visit. Before their final Saturday stop in the emergency room, they already had spent time with nurses, pharmacists, child life specialists, and physical and occupational therapists, and learned about sterile processing, radiation oncology and laboratory medicine.

On the last day of the program, mentors and site hosts unite, making it a special one to remember.

“I’ll make books for the kids with famous motivational quotes that they get to keep,” Shursen says. “We have a graduation ceremony and hand out diplomas. At the end of the ceremony, the kids toss their caps. Every year it’s a lot of fun and extremely rewarding.”

Something more to gain

Brittany Cisneros teams with her mentor
Laurie Elmore in the laboratory to conduct several experiments.

Students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the Health Adventures program. Medical professionals and volunteers also have gained something valuable — the satisfaction of making a difference in a child’s life.

That’s been the case for Osvaldo Gomez, who’s been a volunteer mentor for the past five years.

“It’s so critical for kids to have caring adults in their lives, and some of these kids go home to a very challenging environment,” he says. “They’re bringing a lot of challenges to the program already, so to be a part of their lives for these nine months is very important to me. That’s one of the reasons I got involved.”

Gomez, a human resources specialist at M. D. Anderson, says the program has contributed to his learning about the diverse world of medicine.

“I get a chance to experience and see things within the hospital that I wouldn’t normally see as an employee, like the operating room, rehabilitation center or radiology,” he says. “I read about them, I work with some of the staff involved, but this program really gives me a chance to be in the middle of seeing first-hand what these areas are all about.”

Rodrigo Lugo (left) and Frederik Diaz listen intently as nurse Sally Fernandez
discusses what a typical day is like in M. D. Anderson’s Emergency Center.

Sally Fernandez, nurse manager for the Emergency Center, has been a work-site host since the program started. Motivating students to keep attending school has been an enjoyable experience for her. “It’s always great to help them stay in school and get them excited about continuing their studies. Get them focused, not off track,” she says.

According to Shursen, students in higher-grade levels are more prone to quit school, which is why the Health Adventures program focuses on elementary school-age children. The goal is to reach students early and get them excited about staying in school and seeing what career opportunities are available to them.

Like Frederik, 12-year-old David Espinoza feels fortunate to be in such a program. “I learned how to take care of people and what to do if they had a heart attack or were on the ground,” he says. “I like this program. We’re lucky that we’re here.”

Future plans for the Health Adventures program include having a reunion for mentors and past students involved. “This program continues to evolve every year,” Shursen says.

Conquest - Spring 2008

Download pdf version of Spring 2008


One More Reason Not to Smoke 
View video: Christopher Amos, Ph.D., discusses genetic risk factors associated with lung cancer.


Life Is Full of Adventures
View video: Children visit MD Anderson’s Rehabilitation Services.

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© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center