Outbreak: High school students play disease detectives at FIU College of Medicine


They had a script with a catchy title, Outbreak, and a plot worthy of a Hollywood movie: hundreds of South Floridians are stricken with a highly infectious disease, one person is dead, several are hospitalized, medical experts are scrambling to discover the cause, and 50 outstanding high school students from across the country come together to solve the medical mystery and save the day.

Aileen M. Marty, M.D. addresses students at National Youth Leadership Forum Day

Aileen M. Marty, M.D. addresses students at National Youth Leadership Forum Day

The students were participants in the National Youth Leadership Forum: Careers in Medicine, a national summer program for high school students from the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, interested in pursuing a career in medicine. As part of the program, they visited the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) on June 27 to take part in a mock exercise simulating the process doctors go through to reach a diagnosis.

“The goal of the campus visit is to help students test their interest in medicine, better understand the demands of the profession, and explore career options within medicine,” said Dr. Robert Hernandez, executive associate dean for student affairs and director of Outbreak.

“Developing pipeline programs such as this one is critical to HWCOM’s mission of recruiting the best and brightest individuals to pursue careers in medicine and to train and practice in South Florida,” Hernandez added.

Playing disease detectives

Jonathan Kapitansky auscultates Harvey's abdomen

Jonathan Kapitansky auscultates Harvey’s abdomen

The exercise was designed to be highly interactive; and since wardrobe goes hand-in-hand with a good script, the students each got a white coat and a badge to wear for their roles as disease detectives.

“Maria is a 37-year-old woman who presents to the ER with a 9-day history of fever, abdominal pain and diarrhea,” Dr. Aileen Marty told the students gathered in a classroom auditorium to get their marching orders. Marty, an infectious disease specialist and the scriptwriter for the mock exercise, set the stage for the students with an overview of the outbreak – signs, symptoms and demographics. The teens were divided into four teams led by medical students from HWCOM and off they went to gather clues by rotating through several stations.

“Hearing his heartbeat was so cool,” said Fabiana Guzman-Barron, 16, of Weston, after listening to the heart of Harvey, a patient mannequin in the Albert and Debbie Tano Simulation Center.

Students inspect diseased organs in the mock morgue

Students inspect diseased organs in the mock morgue

Another station, a mock-morgue, was set up in the anatomy lab where the students reviewed a victim’s autopsy report. They even got to hold and inspect preserved organs showing signs of the disease threatening South Floridians. “It’s been really fun and exciting,” said Walid Kherat, 19, of Peoria, Illinois. “I’m so glad I came.”

The teens also discussed x-ray and lab reports from the victims to glean further clues to what could be causing the outbreak. Inside the Mobile Health Center, they received a health department report with the latest information on casualties and a suspected source of the infection, a worker who sold food at a local sports complex.

“It’s kind of like a puzzle. Figuring out the right piece to figure out what is happening is very interesting,” said Jonathan Kapitansky, 17, of Coral Springs.

Robert Hernandez, M.D. and the students review x-ray and lab results

Robert Hernandez, M.D. and the students review x-ray and lab results

It’s a wrap

After hours of putting the pieces together, all four teams of young medical detectives concluded the outbreak was caused by Salmonella enterica Typhi, a nasty bacterium responsible for typhoid fever which is transmitted by ingesting food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. The traced the start to a worker at a South Florida sports arena who was not too keen on washing his hands after visiting the bathroom.

“I think it was a great experience,” said Taylor Kelley, a Satellite Beach high school senior who wants to be a dermatologist. “It really opened my eyes to what it really takes to become a doctor.”