Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital helps Naperville teens explore health careers

Northwestern Medicine's CDH shows Naperville teens what health careers are really like

  • Being a dietitian is about much more than talking "about fruits and vegetables all day," clinical dietitian Beth Gordon tells Naperville Central High School students as they visit Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital during a health occupations course.

    Being a dietitian is about much more than talking "about fruits and vegetables all day," clinical dietitian Beth Gordon tells Naperville Central High School students as they visit Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital during a health occupations course. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Beth Gordon, a clinical dietitian at Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield details the nutrition work she does as a dietitian to Naperville Central High School students in a health occupations course.

    Beth Gordon, a clinical dietitian at Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield details the nutrition work she does as a dietitian to Naperville Central High School students in a health occupations course. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted3/10/2017 6:00 AM

Steven Sawicki wants to be a neurosurgeon and Olivia Brothers a nurse, but one morning in Winfield, they're both learning about poop.

The Naperville Central High School seniors sit down with 46 of their peers in a conference room at Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital to hear about the job of clinical dietitian Beth Gordon, which intimately involves excrement.

 

As one of the presenters to the health occupations class, Gordon tells students that much of her patient interaction begins with the open-ended and unusual question, "tell me about your poop," because its characteristics in color, shape and smell can say much about nutrient absorption and overall health.

"If you get grossed out talking about poop," Gordon says, "maybe this is not the right path for you."

Some students look stone-faced, serious -- probably crossing "dietitian" off their list of potential careers. Others chuckle at Gordon's puns and even raise their hands to admit sneaking glances at their No. 2 in the toilet, which the dietitian calls a healthy practice.

The presentation is part of a long-standing collaboration between the hospital and Naperville Unit District 203, which the district recently recognized with the 2017 Exemplary Business Partnership Award.

Allowing high school students to see hospital work environments, hear from hospital workers and learn what it takes to get a job in health care helps them make better informed career choices, said Naperville Central teacher Amanda Ferreri.

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Instead of seeing a pediatrics unit or a cancer center for the first time during a college course or internship -- when it might already be too late to smoothly change focus -- Ferreri said the high school course gives students an earlier introduction.

"The biggest benefit that I've seen is they get so much exposure through this program," Ferreri said. "They get to see careers they might not have thought about."

Twice a week during the spring semester, students in the health occupations course travel to the hospital for tours of units or talks from staffers like the dietitian Gordon, a pharmacist, a human resources administrator, personnel from the mobile stroke unit and wound care experts.

Students like Sawicki and Brothers, both of whom have long been interested in health careers, jot down notes on clipboards and jump in when speakers ask for questions. What are the best, worst and most challenging parts of the job, when are the hours, what are the options for dietitians to work outside of a hospital, which are the craziest food fad myths they have to debunk -- all of these questions and more students ask and Gordon answers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To Sawicki's query about her favorite part of her work, Gordon tells of forming nutrition plans for newborns to help them grow.

For Brothers' question about whether she often helps patients with eating disorders, Gordon says no; that's highly specialized work that requires a special certification

Riding the bus back to Central, Brothers said she and her peers are always in awe, impressed at what they've seen and excited about their future career possibilities.

Teacher Ferreri said the health occupations course is also a partnership with the College of DuPage, which gives students college credit for completing it.

The class functions to "show them hands-on what health care is … and to show them reality versus what they see on TV," said Ruth Caron, coordinator of student and school partnerships.

This is a benefit for the hospital, too, because it puts its technology and the great work of its employees on display. Plus, it introduces a new wave of potential volunteers or workers and lets staff share their passion.

For Gordon, beyond poop, her passion is the science of nutrition and how it can help the body heal and prosper. She came into the field interested in weight loss and helping others achieve such goals.

"It's more than that," Gordon said, advising the students to think more broadly about nutritional work in research and development, food service, restaurant corporations or education. "We don't just talk about fruits and vegetables all day."

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