LEWISBURG — Five years ago, Kirsten Gateless was a student at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia and dreamed of becoming a doctor. In May, Gateless is on track to earn a medical degree from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) and hopes to major in surgery or emergency medicine.
The Flatwoods native said she couldn’t have done it without the Green Coat program, a partnership between WVSOM’s Rural Health Initiative (RHI) and Davis Medical Center in Elkins that allows undergraduate students to get an early taste of what it’s like to work in a hospital. Gateless is one of three aspiring doctors who completed the program at Davis and went on to study medicine at WVSOM.
“I knew from my freshman year that I wanted to go to medical school,” Gateless said. “I have always been interested in science. And I knew I wanted to go beyond nursing, because where I grew up everyone expected women in health care to be nurses, and I didn’t want to do that.
Through the WVSOM Green Coat program, Davis & Elkins students learn clinical responsibilities through exposure to at least 15 different departments at Davis Medical Center. They monitor doctors and other healthcare professionals, communicate with patients and assist staff as needed. A Green Coat student may transport patients for tests, help answer call lights or participate in “comfort bypasses”, visit or play games with patients in need of social interaction.
Gateless heard about the Green Coat program from his biology professors at Davis & Elkins during his sophomore year and completed the semester-long program the following fall. She said the experience gave her the opportunity to observe a variety of health care settings.
“I worked in an outpatient clinic with nurses, shadowed doctors as they talked to patients, and was able to work with a few WVSOM students who rotated to Davis. I visited the inpatient pharmacy, the inpatient physiotherapy department and the oncology suite,” Gateless said. “I even got to watch a few surgeries which was very beneficial because although I thought the surgery was something I wanted to do, it was great to see it in person and know that I didn’t. I wasn’t going to pass out.”
To apply for the Green Coat program, a student must be a sophomore or majoring in health sciences, and must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and a recommendation from a principal or advisor from the program. Accepted students must work 8-10 hours per week for 20 weeks.
Valerie Bright, volunteer services coordinator at Davis Medical Center, oversees WVSOM’s Green Coat program at the facility. She said 30 students have participated in the program since its inauguration in the 2015-2016 academic year.
One such future healthcare provider is Trey Furby, of the WVSOM Class of 2022. A Belington native, Furby, like Gateless, discovered the program while attending Davis & Elkins College, where he earned degrees in biology, chemistry and history. Furby said the Green Coat program confirmed his desire to one day practice in rural West Virginia. As a student at WVSOM, he joined the RHI program to deepen his understanding of rural health care challenges.
In addition to the three Green Coat students at Davis who have continued to attend WVSOM, a fourth plans to enter the school’s class of 2026 this fall. But Rebecca Thacker, who coordinates WVSOM’s RHI program, explained that the Green Coat program isn’t just designed to bring students to the Lewisburg-based school of osteopathic medicine.
“The goal is to improve opportunities for student acceptance into various health professions,” Thacker said. “It’s not just about turning students into osteopathic doctors. Green Coat participants traveled to each of the state’s three medical schools. We have students who have gone into dentistry, nursing, radiology and other fields. We want them to see different levels of practitioners across multiple departments in a clinical setting so that we can expand the healthcare workforce in West Virginia.
Bright said she has personally seen the program help students identify a direction for their careers.
“Part of the idea is to help students decide what they want,” she said. “There may be a pivotal moment during the program where a participant says, ‘Now I know for sure that this is the direction I want to go.’ And some come with a view to med school, but after their rotations they say, “I’m changing lanes because I want to be a physician assistant” or “I’m going to nursing school.”
Additionally, Bright said she tries to tailor the program to meet each student’s needs through “specialty of choice” rotations.
“We had a student who was interested in pathology, so I worked with our pathologist and got him an extra rotation. We had one who was interested in general surgery. I spoke to one of our general surgeons and she took her out for a day,” Bright said.
For Gateless, the Green Coat program strengthened her resolve to enter medical school at WVSOM. She pointed out that students at small undergraduate colleges such as Davis & Elkins often have few opportunities to gain real-world experience at medical institutions.
“Green Coat gave me the opportunity to make sure medicine was where I wanted to be,” Gateless said. “If I hadn’t taken this program, I would have had no idea what was going on in a hospital until my third year of medical school.
Students wishing to apply for the program can do so at www.wvsom.edu/academics/programs/rhi/greencoat. The application deadline for the Fall 2022 semester is April 1. For more information, contact Rebecca Thacker at [email protected] or 304-647-6298.
WVSOM also offers a Green Coat program through the Charleston Area Medical Center. This program is suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.