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Hands-on medicine

By Bradley West '13
July 26, 2012

St. Olaf students (from left) Erin Kelly '14, Andrew Sathoff '13, and Daniel Dyer '13 are the first to participate in a new clinical and research program that Gaylan Rockswold '62 (center) designed to provide undergraduates with hands-on medical experience. 

When Gaylan Rockswold '62 was a student at St. Olaf College, one of the only ways he could gain hands-on experience in the medical world was to work as a surgical orderly.

"I spent most of that time scrubbing floors and carting patients around," he says.

Now a highly distinguished neurosurgeon at the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), where he has worked for 37 years and has served as the chief of neurosurgery, Rockswold wanted to give today's St. Olaf students a more meaningful experience — one that would enable them to be deeply involved in the daily work of medical professionals.

So he designed a summer clinical and research program that gives students the opportunity to work with physicians and administrators in a variety of departments at HCMC. He and his wife, Mary Garnaas Rockswold '63, established an endowment to fund the program, which currently is in its pilot year and will likely be expanded in future summers.

The program aims to provide undergraduate students with the type of training and immersion that would have been unimaginable when Rockswold was a student. It gives undergraduates a level of access and experience normally reserved for medical school students.

The first three Oles to take advantage of this collaboration between St. Olaf and HCMC are Daniel Dyer '13, Andrew Sathoff '13, and Erin Kelly '14.

Working directly with doctors
Dyer and Sathoff, who both plan to attend medical school, are working directly with doctors and surgeons throughout the hospital, shadowing them on their rounds and scrubbing in to observe everything from surgeries to births. Kelly, who is considering a career in public health or epidemiology, works with hospital administrators on programs that address health care payments and readmission rates.

During the 10-week internship, Dyer and Sathoff participate in clinical rotations through eight different specialties, including pediatrics, radiology, general surgery, psychiatry, and the emergency room. This schedule of rotations allows them to work with a wide range of hospital staff members and in a variety of medical settings.

Such exposure to so many specialties is unique to this HCMC internship. "I don't know of any other programs like it. All my pre-med buddies get a little jealous when they hear about this experience," Sathoff says.

"I get to live and work just like an actual doctor," Dyer adds. "Except that I still get some sleep."

And their work has impressed the medical professionals at HCMC, who aren't used to training undergraduates. "We expected the students to be very green," says Joan Van Camp, a general and trauma surgeon who directs the surgical residency at HCMC. "But in fact, they fit in very well with our daily life here. They are much more knowledgeable and fun to work with than we could have imagined."

Alongside his clinical experiences, Dyer has also teamed up with a surgery resident to work on a research paper about a novel drug treatment for frostbite patients that has lowered amputation rates at HCMC dramatically.

Gaylan Rockswold '62 says it makes sense to bring HCMC and St. Olaf together on this program because "both believe in service as a vocation, in the idea that you need to make a living and need to help others."

Learning from patient interactions
Both Dyer and Sathoff have been surprised by the specialities they have enjoyed the most. Dyer was mostly interested in pediatrics and family care until he spent his first week working in HCMC's renowned Burn Center. During one of his first days shadowing physicians in this clinic, Dyer saw a patient with severe burns covering his entire body. The patient had no health insurance, but the surgeons still spent days giving him the skin grafts necessary to heal his chest and arms.

This experience sparked Dyer's interest in surgery. "It was incredible to watch the patient's slow transformation back to health after such a horrible and painful injury," he says.

When Sathoff began the HCMC internship he was most fascinated by surgery, but he has since discovered a passion for pediatrics as well. "In surgery, you have shorter but more intense relationships with patients. In pediatrics, you get to know your patients better, to develop lasting connections with them," he says.

Sathoff describes an experience in the pediatric intensive care unit that will have a lasting impact on him. He sat in a conference room as a doctor spoke through an interpreter to the family of a young Somali girl who had nearly drowned and was now breathing only with the help of a respirator. The doctor explained that their daughter would never be the same again and asked if they wanted to withdraw care. The family deferred to the opinion of the grandmother, who chose to bring the child home and care for her there.

"I never before had seen this intimate, personal part of the medical field," Sathoff says.

Dyer's and Sathoff's experiences reveal what is especially unique about HCMC. The hospital is dedicated to providing care to vulnerable, diverse, and underserved populations regardless of their ability to pay for medical services. "No patient is ever turned away or denied the necessary care," Rockswold explains.

Helping to keep costs down
Of course, providing emergency room care to people with no insurance is far from cost effective. That is why Kelly is working with hospital administrators on several projects to solve such problems.

Her main work is with a two-year pilot program that aims to provide low-income patients with the best health care at low costs. She is also creating statistical models to predict the chance that a patient will be readmitted to the hospital after being treated. The statistical models will flag high-risk patients so that physicians can better counsel these patients on the steps necessary to avoid readmittance.

Kelly says working in hospital administration has shown her that there are many flaws in the health care system, but also that there are many people committed to fixing the system. "This is a very open hospital where I have made some amazing connections, especially during one-on-one meetings with different administrators," Kelly says.

She has also spent time outside HCMC working with programs like Health Care for the Homeless and attending medical conferences to discuss health care reform. "It is really great to be with a group of people all sharing ideas together and talking about how to fix the system," Kelly says.

The commitment to helping all those in need is why Rockswold believes St. Olaf and the HCMC are so well-matched. "The two institutions both believe in service as vocation, in the idea that you need to make a living and need to help others," he says. "That is what inspired me to bring the two institutions together through this internship."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or