Students in scrubs: the surgery day tradition

For over twenty years, Catlin Gabel parents have supported experiential learning by sharing their medical expertise

By Larry Hurst, 6th Grade Science Teacher

For one school day each year, we toss out our normal routine of individual classes and instead immerse ourselves in a parent-led exploration of select state-of-the-art medical technologies. It’s a wonderful and time-tested experiential activity in the 6th grade: Surgery Day.

To create a hands-on learning environment, parents in a variety of medical specialties bring their expertise, equipment, and co-workers to Catlin Gabel, and set up mock surgical stations in the 6th grade classrooms. Students rotate among stations in small groups to experience and operate the tools and procedures of the medical trade. They learn how to suture pig hearts and feet, navigate and access the brain for operation, practice minimally invasive surgery techniques, fix simulated facial fractures, place casts, open an airway, use cardiology equipment, and observe ultrasound operation.

Surgery Day has grown over the past 20 years but, like many Catlin Gabel traditions, it started small, with a magical confluence of serendipity, interest, talent, time, and encouragement. The program began in the 1980s, when 6th grade teachers invited a few parents to share their medical specialties with the class. Soon the parent volunteers were finding ways to expand and sustain the program. Parent Dr. Bill Long brought over a dozen medical personnel to the school and transformed the original two 6th grade classrooms (Narnia and Treasure Island) into a series of surgical suites staffed by parent M.D.s and Legacy Emanuel support personnel. After several years, Dr. Claudia Gallison then stepped up to take on Surgery Day, coordinating tasks and keeping the tradition alive. In recent years Dr. Karen Selden has led the program and organized the parent volunteers.

Over the years many M.D. specialists, nurses, equipment company representatives, and support personnel have volunteered for Surgery Day—before, during, and after their children attended the 6th grade. Many other medical specialists volunteered because they worked with a school parent. Thousands of hours and many thousands of dollars in supplies and equipment have been donated and used to provide this priceless experience for our children.

At Surgery Day, the students get to see fields of study or future career possibilities that they didn’t know existed, and different views of role models in the medical field. Students are excited to visit each surgical station, and eager to see the new technology and practice skills on the actual equipment used by real doctors. Each station is represented by two or more medical experts, with some stations more simulated than others. When a station shows detailed videos of an operation, or has the student learning to suture a pig’s heart, reality may become too graphic for some. We encourage those that get a bit woozy to step aside from the action and sit down until they feel better. And if a student were to get light-headed, what better place than in a room filled with EMTs and surgeons?

It's exciting to imagine how we could duplicate this experience with other topics. As we pursue new ways to incorporate experiential learning at Catlin Gabel, we look forward to the opportunity of adding a Tech Day or Engineering Day, or some other themed activity where parents could share their expertise and passion.