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‘So mind boggling’: Idaho medical high school students reflect on the pandemic

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Last week, a group of Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School students, who intend to go into health care occupations, gave out KN95 masks to the community, through a partnership with the Idaho Office of Emergency Management and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. From left: Ananya Vinnamala, Reagan Wiedenfeld, Alexis Conway and Hannah Cathrae. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

Future health care workers gave out thousands of KN95s

hey were excited for an “extra spring break” in March 2020, when high school went virtual as COVID-19 arrived in Idaho. They were freshmen then, at the Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School, just starting their journey to a career in health care.

Now, they’re juniors. Three-fourths of their journey so far has taken place in a pandemic. The strife, conflict and vaccine hesitancy that accompanied COVID-19 in Idaho was disappointing, a few students said in an interview with the Idaho Capital Sun. But the pandemic also gave them more motivation to serve their community and pursue careers in health care.

Members of the school’s HOSA Future Health Professionals chapter set up stations around their school last week to distribute 4,000 KN95 masks to students, parents, teachers, and anyone else in the community who wanted extra protection from respiratory viruses.

Encouraged by their advisers, the students handed out more than 2,500 masks to community members during their two-day event. They also donated boxes and masks to other schools and other health care students.

“I’ve always wanted to go into the medical field,” said Ananya Vinnamala, president-elect of the chapter. “My biggest goal in life is to be significant in someone else’s life, and make them feel appreciated. I really want to do that. With this field, I could do that. I want to make an impact.”

Vinnamala’s mother was a pharmacist in India. When she moved to the U.S., she was no longer able to do that work, but she inspired Vinnamala’s career goals. (Vinnamala hasn’t yet settled on a chosen occupation in health care.)

Vinnamala and three other students talked with the Sun about how the pandemic has shaped their view of their chosen career path.

The charter school has about 200 students. If they so choose, they can graduate with an associate degree or take courses that allow them to get certified in health trades — nursing assistant, emergency medical technician or pharmacy technician.

When she enrolled in the school, Reagan Wiedenfeld thought a nursing career would be fun. But as she learned more about the profession, she realized it wasn’t for her — specifically, taking care of patients wasn’t for her.

“I’m actually hoping to go into public health or into epidemiology,” she said. “I want to do more research. I want to do policymaking, because I really love politics and government and all of that stuff. And I want to combine those two interests. So, actually, Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, his job is, like, my dream job. I love it. Even though half the world hates him and half the world doesn’t.”

One of the emotionally challenging parts of the pandemic is a sense of wanting to jump in and help on the front lines, but not yet having that ability, said Hannah Cathrae.

“I definitely do want to work with a lot of patients,” Cathrae said. Watching the hospitals and clinics struggle during the COVID-19 surges made her “want to go help, because that’s one of the most-needed professions right now.”

They experienced COVID-19 along with the rest of the world

Alexis Conway said she came down with COVID-19 in September and missed two weeks of school — and two weeks of homework. Her teachers understood. They encouraged her to rest and recover instead of worrying about school.

That was tough. But it’s been a tough pandemic, Conway and the others said. They ‘met’ their classmates over Zoom. They felt disconnected from peers and too distracted to learn at home. They missed out on milestones like prom. They went to work in service jobs where customers and clients were more agitated and on edge.

“If the pandemic taught me anything, it was that I took a lot of things for granted,” Conway said. “I just think that my kids and my grandkids, this is what they’re gonna be learning about in history class. They are going to learn about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s like, I’m going to be able to have this conversation with my kids, my grandkids. It’s just so mind boggling to me.”

The school’s students have lost people to COVID-19, too.

“My family’s all from India, and COVID there really affected my family,” Vinnamala said.

Her grandfather got COVID-19. He was hospitalized and admitted to the intensive care unit before dying of the disease.

She also lost members of her extended family in India, she said.

“And it was solely because they didn’t have vaccines; they didn’t have the resources America had, and just watching the amount of resources here, and people not using them properly … just, it made me feel sad,” Vinnamala said.

It only made her more driven to pursue a healing art, she said. She hopes to be able to travel to India and other countries to help provide medical care for people who aren’t as fortunate as many Americans.

“Just seeing the hate towards vaccines here” is disconcerting, she said. “It’s so readily available. And there’s so many people who need them in other countries that can’t get them.”