Health care career counselor for county and city schools discusses first year

By Julie Fann
star staff

  Regina Johnson says her first year spent as health care career counselor for Elizabethton city and Carter County schools was extremely productive. According to statistics she compiled, Johnson impacted approximately 5,113 students in grades K-12 using presentations she gave during the academic year 2003-2004.
  "I spoke with 1,729 elementary students, 771 middle school students, and about 2,500 high school students. Usually, I go through the guidance counselors at each school and that's how we set up meetings. For instance, East Side's counselor just picked a grade level a month. At Harold McCormick, I went every Monday for five straight Mondays and visited each class," Johnson said.
  Mountain States Health Alliance and the two school systems appointed Johnson as health care career counselor last year. Johnson is a registered nurse who previously taught at Hunter Elementary School in the Carter County School System. MSHA received a $25,000 matching grant from the Tennessee Hospital Association for the implementation of the position, and Johnson said currently all of the grant funds have been spent and her salary and benefits now come solely from MSHA.
  "It is a wonderful recruiting tool, and we are thrilled that Mountain States is investing in our community and our students," said Meredith Trott, vocational director for CCSS. "We are the fiscal agent. One of us (either county or city schools) had to do this, so we did. She is a wonderful classroom teacher."
  Johnson focuses on bringing health care career counseling to students at their grade level. In grades K-6 she focuses on career exploration by providing mini-lessons on a health care issue that she then ties to a health care career.
  "In Kindergarten, I do a lesson on laboratory careers and we talk about germs and how germs are spread. I tell the kids that there is a special place in the hospital where all people do all day is study germs. We talk about hand washing, and I teach them how to correctly wash their hands," she said.
  A special "glow-germ" kit allows Johnson to put a substance on kid's hands that they wash off. Afterward, she has them put their hands under a black light that reveals places the hand washing missed, like nail beds and the creases of their hands.
  "It really is an eye-opener for them to see that. Suddenly they understand that this is why, when I sneeze into my hand then borrow Brandon's pencil, then my germs are going to Brandon," she said.
  For middle school students, Johnson teaches a lesson on the effects of smoking and links them to respiratory therapy and pulmonology careers. Using a two-liter pop bottle with cotton balls placed in the bottom, Johnson makes a seal at the top using play dough, then lights a cigarette. "I squeeze the bottle to represent inhaling the smoke into the lungs. What happens to the cotton balls, which represent the avioli in the lungs, is they turn yellowish brown. Kids really get a visual picture of what smoking does to the lungs," she said.
  Because they are about to enter high school, eighth graders are under pressure to decide which path they will choose - a college path or a vocational path. Johnson tells them that they will need to take classes that will prepare them for a health care career if that's what they want to pursue, and also reviews the many different career options that require varying levels of education.
  At the high school level, Johnson actually works with students individually. Last year, 96 high school students from Elizabethton High School and the four county high schools requested information on a specific health care career. "My three biggest requests were physical therapy, nursing, and radiology technology," she said.
  Johnson's office is housed at Happy Valley High School since the county system has a greater number of students and because the school offers vocational training and membership to the organization Health Occupation Students of America. Johnson said providing the option of joining a health career club to the other three county high schools is a goal she has for the coming year.
  "I'm considering starting a health care career club, but I would need the approval of the superintendent and principals," she said.
  Ed Herbert, MSHA public relations director, said MSHA is glad students in local schools have the option of learning more about careers in health care since it is now the leading industry in the area.
  "The main reason that we invest in it is we realize that counselors and schools are pressed for time, and this helps students learn more about and understand the many opportunities in the health career field. Maybe this will point them to a field that is more secure," Herbert said.