First-year Hofstra medical student Christina Scelfo observes as Dr. Matthew...

First-year Hofstra medical student Christina Scelfo observes as Dr. Matthew S. Cohen speaks with the mother of a child patient at his Long Beach practice. (May 11, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

They turn off the sirens and hustle into a nursing home in Little Neck.

An elderly man living there, a diabetic whose right leg was amputated two weeks ago, is suffering from chills, a fever and labored breathing.

Alexander Jordan "AJ" Blood, a first-year student at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, takes the patient's pulse and unravels a blood-pressure cuff. Under the supervision of a 22-year veteran paramedic, he also reads the 12-lead

electrocardiogram of the man's heartbeat.

His cardiology textbook is on the floor of the paramedic truck parked outside. Final exams are in a couple of weeks.

That speaks to what sets Hofstra's new medical school apart: Responding to patients and critical thinking are skills deemed more important than textbook memorization and test-taking.

The 40 students in the medical school's founding class wrap up their first year next month. Every one of them plans to return in the fall to continue the program they have helped to shape -- a curriculum that teaches biomedical science through real patient experiences. They will be there to welcome the medical school's second class of first-years, which is planned to have 60 students, selected from about 5,000 applicants.

"There's only so much you get out of the books," said Blood, 24, of McLean, Va. "I can tell you all the genetic factors that would contribute to someone having, say, congestive heart failure, and I can list all the drugs that treat it. That's easy. But to actually meet the patient -- see the face behind the disease -- that's potent."

Each member of the class completes emergency medical training within the first nine weeks of the school year. They are required to log in 16 hours every three months in North Shore-LIJ's ambulance system. Since last fall, each student has been on 11 ambulance tours -- about 88 hours per student.

Much like first-year medical residents, they have rotated through many of the 15 hospitals and physician group practices in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. They've linked up with patients they observe throughout the year, culminating in case studies some will work on through the summer.

They've attended surgeries, delivered babies, counseled the parents of sick children and studied patients with complex, chronic illnesses.

Part of the community

They also have become a part of the Long Island patient community in other ways.

A student knitting group makes caps for newborns delivered at North Shore hospitals. Another student group visits local elementary school classrooms to teach proper hand-washing.

"All of these things allow you to get a stronger sense of what the patient is about," said Reshmi Madankumar, 22, of Jericho. "The patients appreciate the fact that we're there over several visits. It's about earning their trust."

The students have made their mark within the school, too. Last month, the medical school launched a literary magazine, "Narrateur," filled with poetry, narrative stories and artwork by students, residents, veteran physicians, nurses and other health workers across the North Shore system.

All of the students made it through the first year, although some will have to repeat courses.

The pass/fail evaluation process -- simulation, oral presentations and essays -- occurs every 12 weeks. It is meant to gauge student aptitude so instructors can coach them better. There are no multiple-choice exams and little cutthroat competition.

"These are the brightest students from the best undergraduate schools in the country," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief academic officer at the medical school. "We know they're smart enough to be in medical school. We're just giving them an adult learning environment."

Admissions competition

The students went through a rigorous application process. Hofstra received more than 4,000 applications for the 40 spots in the first class. Their MCAT scores and GPAs were high and they hailed from schools that include Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

School officials narrowed down the applications and conducted in-person interviews with 800 applicants before selecting the final candidates.

Hofstra also is filling a need to train more young doctors in a region where the average age of a practicing physician is 52, with 16 percent older than 65, according to the The Healthcare Association of New York State.

Ties to Long Island

About half of the students in the founding class have ties to Long Island or the tristate area, a good indicator that the school is training doctors who are likely to settle in the area, Battinelli said.

A study by the national Association of American Medical Colleges showed that enrollment in U.S. medical schools is on track to rise 30 percent by 2016, helping to ease what some predict will be a shortage of doctors by 2020.

For New York residents, however, the estimated $55,000 annual tuition and fees at the school are nearly four times the cost of attending Stony Brook University School of Medicine, the only other Long Island institution granting doctor of medicine degrees.

And as a new program, Hofstra's school has no track record of "matching," or placing students in competitive hospital residency programs after graduation.

But Hofstra medical students will have priority for residency spots at North Shore-LIJ hospitals, said Dr. Lawrence Smith, the school's founding dean.

"We'll know we've succeeded when the residency director tells us, 'These students are really, really ready,' " Smith said.

Blood, like most of his peers in the Class of 2015, says he hasn't quite made up his mind about a specialization. He is excited about emergency medicine, but also thinking about surgery. Delivering a baby, he says, has been "the most significant experience thus far."

There is one field he definitely rules out.

"People are always pushing hematology on me," he jokes. "With a name like Blood, it's just too easy."