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SUPERIOR – The operating room in Mineral Community Hospital was alive with zaps Wednesday morning.

They meant that sophomores and freshmen from St. Regis and Alberton high schools were being a bit too heavy-handed with an electro-cauterization tool.

“Can we assume the patient is dead by now?” Becca Pluth of Alberton joked after adding her “X” in an impromptu game of tic-tac-toe to a slab of sliced turkey.

“No, no, no,” protested Jan Testa, a surgical technician at the hospital. “The patient is well and alive.”

“That’s right,” Angie Coleman, Testa’s straight-faced fellow tech, agreed. “We don’t kill anybody in here. It’s a liability.”

For the second year, several dozen students from Mineral County’s three high schools got rare glimpses into the inner workings of their local hospital the past two Wednesdays. Superior sophomores went first last week.

They talked not to doctors and nurses, whose roles are better known, but rotated on half-hour shifts between respiratory therapy, the surgery room, radiology and the hospital laboratory.

At the latter they solved a murder mystery, analyzing the blood type from a bloody fingerprint. The sophomores uncovered damning evidence that an unnamed senator murdered an unnamed victim. Type O did him in.

The gladiator (type A) and socialite (type B) were off the hook.

“That was pretty awesome,” Chelsi Wilson of St. Regis observed. “Murder’s my kind of thing.”

“The first group of kids to come through here, they didn’t want to leave. They wanted to do it again,” said Sara Buchanan, a clinical lab scientist. “That just really made me feel good because we really need medical technologists. There’s a huge shortage of them, so to kind of get these kids interested in this is huge.”

The students invaded the hospital through the REACH program – Research and Explore Awesome Careers in Healthcare – developed by a University of Montana-based center seven years ago. The Western Montana Area Health Education Center coordinates REACH programs at hospitals throughout seven counties in western Montana.

“There are so many kids who don’t realize how many careers there are in health care,” said Chris West, the St. Regis science teacher who accompanied five of her students up river to Superior for the morning. “I think this is a great opportunity for them to see it and see that you can make a decent wage.”

According to a Montana Department of Labor and Industry study, health care occupations in the state are expected to grow by 1,300 jobs a year from 2011 to 2021 – the fastest occupational job growth exiting the recession.

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To meet the need, programs such as REACH have been developed to give students early exposure to the health care industry and the career choices available – and they don’t have to go to big cities to find them, according to Tanay Surkund, the hospital’s jovial new better health improvement specialist.

“We want to show them there is an opportunity back in their own community,” Surkind said as he orchestrated the student rotations Wednesday morning amid the arrivals of several patients in need of care. “You don’t need to go to a 500-bed hospital to find a job, you can come back to your own community, be with your family, your friends, and you can support patients in your own capacity in a smaller hospital.”

The experience piqued Shelby Melin’s interest.

“The ultrasound was cool,” the sophomore from St. Regis said. “I asked the lady who showed us how long she went to school and stuff like that so I could learn more about it.”

“It makes me want to do more than I thought I did,” admitted Wilson. “I’d definitely go for surgery.”

Tom Olding, the lab manager who helped Buchanan with the murder mystery game, came to Mineral County from “back East” 10 years ago.

“The biggest thing is this is an area where jobs are pretty few and far between, but if you look around in the lab here, almost everybody who works here is from somewhere else,” Olding said. “There’s an issue with growing local talent to actually take over these positions.”

Hospitals are looking to shed high-paying positions in favor of technicians and other ancillary jobs that require far less training but play vital roles.

“We’re trying to let the kids know, because they think if you don’t work for the Forest Service or DOT, you’re not going to get a job,” Olding said.

“We wanted to show them these lines (of work) and say these are valid options for you,” said Surkund. “They’re really fun and really cool and you can live a good life.”

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Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian