This post was updated Aug. 18 at 10:43 p.m.
When Alexis Briano started high school in 2015, she hoped to join a club at her school for students interested in pursuing medicine, but found nothing. Exploring her options, she discovered a program that would let her shadow physicians in Los Angeles hospitals.
Briano, who graduated high school in June, was one of two students chosen in 2018 to intern at the UCLA medical centers in both Westwood and Santa Monica through the Eve and Gene Black Summer Medical Career Program. On Saturday, she was honored at Dodger Stadium alongside seven members of the Los Angeles Pediatric Society, which hosts the program, to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary.
The Los Angeles Dodgers provided the society with 66 free tickets for the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks and recognized them during their pregame ceremonies.
The program invites high schoolers from all backgrounds to shadow medical professionals at work. More than 50 high school students in the program spend two to four weeks at top-ranking medical institutions in Los Angeles County, including UCLA.
Briano said she was able to shadow the rheumatology, oncology and surgery departments, among others.
“I was able to shadow almost every day in a different department, most of them in pediatrics,” Briano said.
As exciting as it may be to shadow some of the best doctors in the world, Briano said it also opened her eyes to the hardships faced in the medical profession.
“One time, I saw this girl laying down and she had electrodes like covering her body and I felt helpless,” Briano said. “My heart went out for her because she was struggling. And that’s something I wasn’t able to comprehend so much before this shattering experience.”
Eyal Ben-Isaac, a general pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, directed the program at his hospital for 25 years. He said it was difficult to find faculty to supervise the interns at first, but as the program grew, more and more pediatricians were willing to take on more students.
The program recently added the UCLA Health-affiliated Orthopaedic Institute for Children to its roster of participating facilities. Currently, 12 facilities host up to 66 students every year under the program.
Ben-Isaac said he has seen many alumni from the Gene Black Program return to the hospital as residents and faculty over the decades.
“They get to really experience all the different facets of pediatrics, (and) at our hospital it’s specifically pediatrics,” Ben-Isaac said.
Sabrina Vasquez, a rising fourth-year student at Alhambra High School, said being exposed to a variety of medical fields made her realize which she enjoyed the most.
“Some departments were more interesting than others, for example pain and palliative care,” Vasquez said. “But at the same time, I found that neurology was more interesting than pain and palliative care.”
Briano said the program helped her decide to not just pursue medicine as a career but also to study how devices such as the electrocardiogram, which monitors electrical signals in the heart, work.
“(In) cardiology, there was a nurse that showed me this device called a ‘septal occluder’ and the cardiologist was able to show me the EKG,” Briano said. “It made me more interested in biomedical engineering.”
Owing to the program’s success, Ben-Isaac said the application process has gotten more competitive.
“More and more students are actually applying for it as well, and they are writing some amazing essays to get into the program,” Ben-Isaac said.
Vasquez beat the odds to intern at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in 2019. Vasquez was initially selected as an alternate, but three days before the orientation began, a spot opened for her.
“They were like, ‘Oh, we were wondering if you would like to come join us for this program because someone else dropped out,’” Vasquez said. “I was like, ‘Of course, like, why wouldn’t I?’”
The program has faced some difficulties in its history, said Katherine Galos, who has been a mentor for the program for 41 years. She recalled how the program had to work around the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, more commonly known as HIPAA, which protects patient privacy.
“The privacy laws have limited what the students can do. They really can’t interact with the patients, which makes it extremely difficult,” Galos said. “I’ve been able to pick certain areas where it doesn’t infringe on patient privacy.”
But despite the troubles, Galos said the program has seen tremendous success.
“We have many, many doctors walking on the street that went through this program. And they all owe their allegiance to our group,” Galos said.
Briano starts at Harvard University as a biomedical engineering student in September. She said she wants to both practice and teach medicine in the future.