Prepping for the future: Student, surgeon team up for innovative internship
By Eileen Persike
2021 Rhinelander High School graduate Abigale Henrichs has been interested in health care career for as long as she can remember. But health care is a wide field and Abigale was unsure which direction to go. Should she become a chiropractor like her parents, Dr. Wendy and Dr. Scott Henrichs, or consider medicine? Fortunately for her, an innovative program formed by local orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kent Jason Lowry gave Abigale the opportunity to explore.
After completing a semester-long medical internship she is still unsure of her path, but the opportunity made her realize a few things.
“I do know that health care is what I want to go into and doing the internship just solidified that,” she said. “I got so much out of it. And so many students who even have the slightest interest in health care and are ambitious enough to pursue the opportunity would get so much out of it as well.”
Since 2013 Dr. Lowry has mentored five high school students through an unofficial internship in conjunction with Rhinelander High School. His first mentee, Ryley Zastrow, has been accepted into the Johns Hopkins Orthopaedic Surgery Residency Program.
“I look at it as I’m opening a door into a room full of books and information and help them walk in, and now it’s on their shoulders to decide what they want to look at and what they want to learn more about,” Lowry said. “I feel very confident in being able to say that these five students are the only five students in the country in high school that have had this kind of experience.”
Lowry has developed the guidelines and steps the students need to go through for a successful completion of the program.
“There were barriers when we tried to introduce Ryley into this experience,” he said. “The system was saying high school students aren’t ready, they won’t get anything out of it, it will be too overwhelming, patients won’t be receptive, staff won’t be receptive. All of those concerns were dispelled. What Ryley was able to pull out of the experience and learn herself is what really opened my eyes and has allowed the program to continue basically through word of mouth in an informal arrangement.”
Now he would like to see it become something more.
“I’m personally feeling a lot more comfortable and confident with the processes we have in place, the way the system is responding, and accepting the students that it’s time to formalize it,” Lowry explained. “I think it’s time to put this out there and create a defined infrastructure around it.”
School District of Rhinelander Superintendent Eric Burke agrees. Burke learned of the internship when he attended a presentation Henrichs gave last month about her experience.
“Any kind of apprenticeship program that we have – I want to see that expanded,” Burke said. “We need welders, and machinists and construction; we need all of those for our economy. But we also need doctors and pharmacists, healthcare workers, bankers and CPAs. This program, because Dr. Lowry is so invested in it, is a great model we can use as we try to expand our horizons with apprenticeship programs in health care.”
The program fits with a new initiative, Inspire Rhinelander, in which Grow North, Rhinelander Partners in Education and the School District of Rhinelander aim to provide students with information and opportunities to learn about possible careers while they are in high school.
“It’s not going to happen overnight but it’s already happening in some ways, so that students will become more informed when they leave here about what they want to do,” Burke added.
One of the pieces that is missing, Lowry said, is a defined set of prerequisites for a student to undertake this type of internship.
“Students have to be driven and self-motivating, demonstrating a high level of academic success,” he said. “I think it’s important that this is a self-driven motivation and not that they are being pressured to it. It’s really on them to make the experience valuable for them.”
Each morning during the second semester, Henrichs spent an hour or two with Lowry, twice a week she was in the operating room – her favorite part – even scrubbing in for surgeries toward the end of the experience.
“To be able to see each movement that Dr. Lowry was doing opened my eyes to the intricacies of the surgery,” Henrichs said. “From afar you don’t really notice when he is moving a nerve out of the way or cauterizing a specific bundle of blood vessels and just seeing that up close… it’s way more complex than I realized.”
Other days she shadowed Lowry on post-op visits and clinic appointments and had experiences in a variety of other departments, internal medicine, pediatrics, general surgery and learned how to read an MRI.
Henrichs earned half a credit for the time she spent observing surgeries at Ascension St. Mary’s hospital, learning the language of medicine and the culture of an operating room. Additionally, she noted, taking the internship instead of an advanced or weighted class cost her the top academic spot in her graduating class. But it was “completely worth it” because of everything she learned.
“That was my biggest conflict going into this; do I want to give that up for this,” Henrichs said. “And I’m so glad that I did because I don’t think having just a normal senior year experience would have compared to the knowledge that I gained through spending time with Dr. Lowry.”
Henrichs is off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, planning to major in neurobiology and possibly obtain a certificate in business in case she one day wants to open her own practice.
As the informal medical internship perhaps inches toward formalization, Lowry said it has given him the chance to give back for the opportunities afforded to him as a student, and “It’s also having the opportunity to be part of that process for energetic minds; I think that is very rewarding.”