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Phoenixville Clinic Launches Girls In Medicine Program

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(From left) Girls In Medicine’s Corina Damian, Hailey Andress, director of development Marrea Smith, Dr. Bette Ann Hoepfner, Priyanka Chunduru and Divya Sivakumar//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.

Open-heart surgery isn’t on every 17-year-old’s wish list, but that’s exactly what Priyanka Chunduru wants to see. “I think this program will help me decide if I really want to do medicine,” she says. “Hopefully it’s a yes.” 

A senior this fall at West Chester’s Henderson High School, Chunduru has just begun her internship with Girls In Medicine, which gives 62 local high-school students hands-on experience in a variety of healthcare jobs. She’ll spend one year in a rigorous program where she’ll learn how to draw blood and identify pathogens, perform CPR, and get her first-aid certifications. 

And like the others, Chunduru will listen to a series of online lectures given by various physicians. She and her fellow interns will learn about child psychology, neural-muscular diseases and much more. After the lectures, the girls are placed in Paoli and Phoenixville hospitals, where they shadow healthcare pros for a week. Then, it’s on to a two-day clinical rotation at Phoenixville.

Girls In Medicine is the creation of The Clinic, a medical center in Phoenixville aimed at providing affordable care to uninsured patients. It’s the only yearlong medical program for girls in the state, and it relies on collaboration with Main Line Health, Phoenixville and Paoli hospitals, Penn Medicine-Visiting Nurses, and the Chester County Medical Society, to name a few. “We hope the unique components of this program allow the girls to do other community outreach and public-health programs,” says GIM founder and director Marrea Smith.   

Though only teenagers, GIM interns are already seasoned multitaskers. Most participate in extracurricular activities like Girl Scouts, music, art and sports. Corina Damian, a rising junior at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, does gymnastics and is learning to become a coach. “I’m a little worried about balancing school work and GIM,” Damian admits. “It might be a bit challenging, but this is important to me.”

Another bonus: Participants can network, meeting like-minded young women who share their interests and aspirations. “The other girls seem awesome,” says Hailey Andress, a senior this fall at the Agnes Irwin School. “We all seemed to hit it off right away.” 

Getting into Girls In Medicine is no small feat. Applicants need recommendations from their school guidance counselors, GPAs over 2.5, and compelling personal statements outlining their interest in the program. The point, Smith says, is to make sure students are genuinely committed. 

The inaugural Girls In Medicine class includes students from the Academy of Notre Dame, Agnes Irwin, the Baldwin School, Archbishop John Carroll High School, Great Valley High School, Henderson High School, Upper Merion High School and Villa Maria Academy High School. 

Spending time with the region’s top doctors and nurses shows participants what’s possible for women in healthcare. Smith believes the program boosts self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills. And then there’s the patient aspect—something the girls need to learn, especially when it comes to difficult cases. “We want them to understand the academic, social and emotional challenges of working in healthcare,” she says. 

Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hoepfner—who joined The Clinic as a resident in 2002 and still volunteers there—will lead a mentoring workshop. “When I think of my high-school peers, there are only three girls, including myself, that went to medical school,” Hoepfner says. “We need to get the message to girls that nothing can stop them.” 

Fourteen-year-old Divya Sivakumar is one of the youngest GIM participants. The rising sophomore at Great Valley High School made the decision to pursue genetics and cardiology in the seventh grade. “We learned about the circulatory system, and I was fascinated with the heart,” she says. “I became interested in congenital conditions and why they happen.” 

Andress was inspired by the ER doctors who treated her after she broke her leg playing lacrosse. “I saw how cool they were and I wanted to be just like them,” she says. 

Medical research appeals to Damian, even if she’s not sold on the gorier aspects of patient care. “Sometimes all the blood gets to me,” she says. 

Chunduru knows that open-heart surgery is about as bloody as it gets. And she does have some concerns about the hospital’s unpredictable environment. “You never really know what to expect with the patients,” she says. “But I think it will still be a fun experience.”