Suburban teens get unique opportunity to study medicine

Kailash Panchapakesan spent his summer in and out of hospital rooms, interacting with patients and shadowing cardiologists.

He learned about various medical conditions and answered patients' questions. He conducted research and presented it to dozens of doctors and other professionals in the field.

At 17 years old, he had an opportunity most young aspiring doctors only dream of.

"Most places don't allow that kind of access," the Algonquin resident said. "It's a great experience at such an early age."

Panchapakesan, who will be a senior at Jacobs High School, was one of 15 interns who spent their summer working with Dr. Paul Nguyen, a cardiac electrophysiologist, through the nonprofit Sudden Cardiac-death Awareness Research Foundation.

SCARF allowed these students, ages 15 to 26, to participate in a mentoring program and work hands-on with patients and research.

"It's a big head start," Panchapakesan said, adding that the internship fortified his dream to one day practice medicine. "I get to see things that people my age don't get to see."

The mission of the organization is to prevent and promote awareness for cardiac death, the leading cause of death in the U.S., Nguyen said. But awareness needs to be strategic.

"My goal is to condition the foot soldiers that will take care of the people who need to be aware," he said. "Everything is about awareness, but the means to get there is through education, teamwork and critical thinking."

Nguyen has been taking students under his wing for a large part of his career, which began when he graduated from medical school in 1997.

He has since founded Elite Cardiology Solutions, a cardiac health care clinic with offices in Sycamore and Elgin, and also practices cardiology at Presence Mercy Medical Center in Aurora, Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin and Kishwaukee Community Hospital in DeKalb.

Anyone who was committed to learning, he was willing to teach, he said.

It wasn't until two years ago, when he and his wife, Rubina Nguyen, founded SCARF, that he had the means to create a formal mentorship program, thus forming the first group of interns this summer.

Career preparation

For St. Charles resident Rehaan Bux, 17, who has always imagined having a career in the medical field, working with Nguyen was a priceless opportunity.

Bux, who will be a senior at St. Charles North High School, said he was able to learn textbook information directly from Nguyen, who would often hold lectures and teach on a whiteboard.

But the best part, Bux said, was that he gave the students the ability to talk to patients, ask questions and learn about real conditions.

"To actually see a person who has a condition and interact with them and learn their story - that's incredible," Bux said. "Very few people ever have that experience before medical school."

Other high school students involved in the program include Shil Shah, a junior at Bartlett High School; Ranzy Collins, a senior at DeKalb High School; Harish Kesavan, a sophomore at Metea Valley High School; and Barrington High School students Millen Srivastava and Akshay Raju, seniors, and Samantha Marlow, a junior.

A large part of the program also revolved around career building, Nguyen said. He set up mock interviews and advised students on professionalism, no matter what field they are interested in pursuing.

"Students come here because they're curious," Nguyen said. "The majority of our message is that the sky is the limit."

It takes commitment

A Vietnamese American whose "family came from nothing," he said, Nguyen hopes to draw students from all different backgrounds, races and social classes to his program.

"I judge based on commitment," he said. "We have the tools to take beliefs, regardless of background, to the next level. Nothing is everything if you have commitment."

Any commitment to SCARF is a commitment for life, said Nick Hadji, a second-year medical student at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.

Hadji, 26, grew up in DeKalb and became one of Nguyen's mentees four years ago. He returned to SCARF this summer to act as a mentor for the younger students. The responsibility of "passing the baton" and giving back to the community, he said, he learned from Nguyen.

Not far from finishing medical school, Hadji said he owes his success to Nguyen.

"The opportunity given to me because of SCARF is something I would never forget or take for granted," he said. "It's really a life-changing program."

Dr. Paul Nguyen. a cardiologist practicing in Sycamore and Elgin, founded nonprofit, SCARF, which lets would-be doctors interact with patients and do research projects on the side.
  St. Charles North senior Rehaan Bux, 17, was one of 15 interns at the nonprofit organization SCARF. The summer internship allowed students to work with Dr. Paul Nguyen, who is a cardiologist practicing in Sycamore and Elgin, interact with patients and do research projects on the side. The organization promotes raising awareness for sudden cardiac death, but it also serves as an education opportunity for students to learn about the medical field and beyond. Rick West/
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