The NYU Langone Hospital program, which is in its second year, servies Hempstead students from ages 16 to 18 at no cost. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports. Credit: Newsday/Staff

Salma Perez Hernandez was valedictorian at Hempstead High School this year, earning a prestigious Bill Gates scholarship to Cornell University.

At the university, she will set her sites on the medical field, thanks to the experience she got at the NYU Langone Health Mentoring Program for high school students that she participated in last summer — the program's inaugural year. It helped her sharpen her focus to studying cognitive neuroscience, she said, with the goal of eventually becoming a surgeon. 

 "It just really cemented my love for the health system, the medical system," Hernandez said in an interview. She recalled "going on rounds" with doctors and residents in the hospital. In her college application essays, she said, "I reflected on this program a lot … I have the experience in the medical field. I wasn't just going into 'Oh, I want to be premed because I think it's a good fit,' but because I actually spent some time on the floors with the nurses, with the residents as well, just learning."

Hernandez, along with hospital officials, spoke to this summer's participants Monday at NYU Langone Hospital — Long Island in Mineola. There are 10 students from Hempstead High and five from Evergreen Charter School, also located in Hempstead Village, in this year's program, said LaShon Pitter, nurse manager of the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital, who is part of the mentorship managing team.

The program serves two functions, Pitter said. One to help recruit young people into the field of health care after the "burnout" from COVID-19 pandemic caused many to leave. The program also provides opportunities to young people in Hempstead Village, Pitter said, noting it has a large minority population, many of whom may not have access to a lot of resources.

"We needed to get to students before they decided on a career, especially [students] in areas that may not have a lot of opportunities and may not know about the different areas in the hospital that are open to them. Not everyone wants to be a doctor or a nurse," Pitter said.

The mentorship program is slated to last one month, with students coming to the hospital from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Wearing a purple NYU Langone Health jacket, Gabrielle Osorio, 14, who will be a tenth grader at Hempstead High in the fall, was already inclined toward a career in the medical field since her mom's a nurse. But after hearing about the program at school she was keen on the "learning experience" of "shadowing doctors, seeing the labs" and learning about "patient care." She wants to be a surgeon one day "in neuro or cardio" fields.

Dr. D'Andrea Joseph, chief of trauma and acute care surgery at the hospital, observed a small group of the students as a nurse in the medical intensive care unit demonstrated the operation of an EKG machine, which tests heart function. Joseph said in an interview, "I quite enjoy having the people coming up and acting, if I can, as a role model, trying to show them what's it's like to do something that I love."

She added, "I think for me it's a privilege to engage younger people who have an interest. I share my life story sometimes … I was a little girl in a little island that most people haven't heard of," she said of her home country, Dominica, a Caribbean Island nation. She said she tells them: "that there's a light at the end. You may get into some stumbles. But you just get up and you keep walking."

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