Christopher Cisneros had learned how to identify a stroke in class: drooping face, slurred speech, weak arm. The woman in front of him, whose vitals he’d been taking, exhibited the second. He couldn’t comprehend her. 

Cisneros, who was newly rotating through the emergency department at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, alerted the patient care technician nearby. Later that day, the woman’s scans confirmed: A blood clot had formed in her brain. 

The 17-year-old returned to his school across the street — Trimble Tech High School, where, for the past three years, he’s studied medicine. Cisneros is one of about 70 seniors who, at the end of this school year, will have the opportunity to earn a certification and be eligible to work in health care after graduation.

The high school’s health science program, one of close to 20 pathways students can choose in their tenure at Trimble Tech, has existed for decades. But the program has a freshly renovated space funded by Fort Worth ISD’s 2017 capital improvement program and finished in January. 

The environment offers a seven-bed patient ward, nurse’s station and ambulance cabin, as well as the opportunity to expand into different skill sets: pharmacy, obstetrics and intensive care. 

The renovations echo the program’s commitment to helping students learn the norms and expectations of working in a health care setting. 

“We’re very big on discipline and maturity here,” said Alex McCulloch, who teaches Cisneros’ patient care class. “It’s not playtime.”

The looming castle of Trimble Tech, located at 1003 W. Cannon St., sits snugly within Fort Worth’s medical district. Texas Health Fort Worth neighbors the school to the west, across South Henderson Street. To the south, just past the high school’s baseball field, lies a roughly five-acre plot of land that will one day hold the campus of the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU

More than 3,000 students have graduated through the health science program since its inception in 1980, McCulloch said. About 320 students are enrolled this year, roughly 20% of Trimble Tech’s student body. 

When Cisneros was in third grade, his sister was diagnosed with leukemia. He watched her medical team deliver her treatment with precision and care. She’s OK now, but the experience stayed with Cisneros. When the time came for high school, he applied to Trimble Tech through the district’s school choice program so he could pursue the health science program. 

The program begins in a student’s first year with a principles of health science class, McCulloch said. Students wear scrubs — hunter green on top and black on bottom — on class days. They learn foundational anatomy, medical terminology and how health care works. 

In year two, the students take a theory class that covers body systems, diseases and basic nursing skills: how to check vital signs, how to make a hospital bed, how to bathe a patient. The new patient ward, equipped with mannequins, offers one form of practice. Students also serve as patients for each other.

“We find that (variety of practice) helps our students build that confidence when they do go to the hospital or somewhere else, because they’ve done it on a mannequin, but they’ve also done it on a number of people,” McCulloch said. “As our kids learn, nobody’s body is the same.”

For each of a student’s first two years, the health science program takes up only one period. The other seven include traditional coursework and electives like fine arts or sports. 

By year three, students begin the practicum component of the program, a hands-on clinical experience that requires two of their eight periods, or 25% of their coursework. 

In two- and three-week increments, they rotate through departments at Texas Health Fort Worth. They observe, yes, but they also engage: taking vitals, bathing patients, making beds. “We don’t want a bystander,” McCulloch said. 

Cisneros was participating in his emergency room rotation when he heard the garbled speech of the patient in front of him. The solemnity of the encounter shook him. Now, as a senior in high school, he already knows that precision — and paying attention — can save a person’s life. 

His peer and fellow senior, Stephanie Martinez, calls the program a “reality check.” 

“We learn that there’s going to be sick patients who are on the verge of maybe passing away, but we never really see it here at school,” she said. “But whenever I was there … seeing how sick someone can actually be in the hospital, it really brought emotions.”

Once, during her occupational therapy rotation, she encountered a patient who didn’t speak English. Martinez speaks Spanish, so she was able to interpret for the patient and his occupational therapist. 

“Seeing that he couldn’t really speak what he was trying to say, it made me so grateful that I could help him,” she said. “I feel like it makes someone feel more comfortable.”

In year four, senior year, the students choose to further specialize between patient care, emergency medicine or medical billing and coding. They continue to balance clinical rotations and class time. For example, students in the emergency medicine class will participate in 12-hour ambulance shifts through the school’s partnership with Medstar Mobile Healthcare

The program is planning to re-establish a pharmacy track as soon as the school can find someone to teach it, McCulloch said. The previous iteration ended five or six years ago when the last teacher left, he said. The new space comes well-equipped; it includes a pharmacy, as well as labor and delivery and intensive care rooms. Those haven’t been set up yet.

Before students graduate, they take one of three certification exams to become a patient care technician, emergency medical technician or medical billing and coding specialist. Students in McCulloch’s patient care class can also become phlebotomy- or EKG technician-certified, if they choose to complete additional clinical requirements. 

The district pays for and proctors the exams, McCulloch said.

Almost 92% of students on the campus are economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. Some are supporting their families, McCulloch said. The health science program can make a “major impact” on their future economic security, he said.

The financial aid does help, said Melissa Montero, another senior in the patient care course. The program allows students a glimpse into the health care world and culls those who decide they “can’t take it,” she said. If, by the end of high school, a student chooses not to pursue a career in medicine, they haven’t already invested money doing so.

She’s learned that not all health care takes place at a patient’s bedside, Montero said. In her rotation with hospital administration last year, she sat in on meetings about how to transfer patients to Texas Health Fort Worth’s new Jane and John Justin Tower. When the transition period began, she helped direct patient families through the new space. 

She intends to be triple-certified — in patient care, EKG and phlebotomy — by next spring and work through college. Cisneros hopes to one day work in pediatrics. Martinez isn’t sure what she wants to pursue yet, but she’s OK with that. 

“That’s what I like about (this program),” she said. “Since we get to go to the hospital, you get to see different career opportunities you’ll have in the field. You don’t really close your eyes to one. You get to see it all.”

For Ahylin Munoz, also a senior in the patient care class, the program has helped her identify and push past her own limits. “You basically find out your dedication here,” she said.

When she was younger, she often opted to stay home with her grandmother and great grandmother instead of going out. She wanted to make sure they could access their medication, that they were feeling OK. “I feel like the caregiving part was always a part of me,” she said. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched across her high school years, the support and encouragement she received from people in the health science program buoyed her when she felt like giving up. 

After graduation, she’s planning to stay in health care, she said. She already knows what it requires. She credits the health science program for that. “They give us a realization of what we will be seeing in the future.”

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....