By TYLER ELLYSON, UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Allison Heath’s interest in health care was sparked by a popular TV series.

“When I was younger, I fell in love with ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” she explained.

Like the characters on the long-running ABC drama, Heath dreamed of becoming a medical professional. “I just didn’t know it was possible,” she said.

Her mindset changed last summer, when the guidance counselor at Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools encouraged her to take a certified nursing assistant training course.

“That’s when I realized how doable it is to get into health care,” said Heath, who started working as a CNA at Gordon Memorial Hospital this summer.

The soon-to-be senior takes a lot of pride in her position. She wants to be there for people during a time of need.

“A lot of students are interested in health care because you can make a lot of money,” she said. “Yes, that’s true, but from my standpoint it’s really fulfilling to be able to help people.”

Heath is considering a career as a radiologic technologist, radiologist, nurse practitioner or physician assistant.

“I’m keeping my options open right now,” she said. “It will depend on what kind of scholarships I get.”

She took another step toward her goal Tuesday by attending the Health Science Explorers summer camp hosted by the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Organized by UNK Health Sciences, the event gave high schoolers from across the state an opportunity to learn more about health care careers and UNK programs while participating in hands-on activities. They dissected beef hearts and lungs in Bruner Hall of Science and applied casts to each other’s arms during a sports medicine exercise in Cushing Coliseum. Students also visited the Health Science Education Complex for a nursing escape room, injection activity and ultrasound practice.

“There are a lot of hands-on experiences, and it’s been really cool just to see the different scopes of health care and what all is out there,” Heath said.

Sara Bruner, coordinator of the Health Science Explorers program, believes it’s important to get high schoolers on campus so they can see the facilities, interact with faculty and “picture themselves” in these programs.

“There’s such a huge need for health care professionals, especially in rural settings. It’s pretty much across the board, from medical lab science to nursing to radiography to physicians,” Bruner said. “We want students to find the profession that’s right for them, then give them some direction on what they need to do next to pursue that career.”

Camp participants learn about the opportunities available at UNK throughout the day. These include living-learning communities designed specifically for health science students, mentorship and academic support and professional development experiences such as job shadowing, networking and internships.

UNK also partners with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to offer the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), another initiative aimed at growing the state’s health care workforce. The program provides financial assistance for students who plan to practice in rural Nebraska, with many participants receiving full-tuition scholarships to attend UNK and guaranteed admission to UNMC.

Heath and fellow Health Science Explorers camp attendee Gabe Gans are both interested in KHOP.

Entering his senior year at McCook High School, Gans wants to attend UNK because he likes the close-knit campus and community, as well as the proximity to his hometown. The strong partnership between UNK and UNMC is another plus.

“I feel like UNK is a really good steppingstone for me,” he said.

Unlike Heath, Gans is already focused on a single medical field – orthopedics. He’s undergone three ACL surgeries in the past three years.

“Through my athletic injuries, I’ve had experience with Dr. (Nolan) May here in Kearney and that’s the direction I’d like to go,” Gans said. “There are a lot of athletes who end up with this injury, and I always feel that with health care it’s best to have someone who understands your issues and can relate to patients.”

Gans started assisting at a physical therapy clinic in McCook this summer, and he signed up for the UNK camp to continue that momentum.

“It’s a great introduction to the medical field,” he said.

In addition to the on-campus events, UNK offered a summer camp at Community Hospital in McCook and another camp is scheduled for July 30 at College Park in Grand Island, with spots still available.

“All of the students that we’ve had this summer have been phenomenal,” Bruner said. “We’re really excited about these students, who represent the future of health care in Nebraska.”