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  September 4, 2001

Future Doctors Embark on
Combined Degree Program

Megan Rourke has dreamed of becoming a doctor ever since she was a child.

"I used to play with my toy medical kit instead of dolls," she recalls. In sixth grade, her favorite class was human biology. "I was fascinated by the cardiovascular system," she says.

Now a freshman at UConn, Rourke is on the path to making her dream a reality. She is one of five students enrolled in a new program that offers a combined undergraduate and medical or dental degree.

UConn joins about 30 colleges around the country offering the BA/BS and MD/DMD program, which guarantees admission to medical or dental school to selected high school students after they complete their undergraduate work. While working on an approved undergraduate program, the students are linked with the UConn School of Medicine or School of Dental Medicine through special seminars and health-profession activities. The eight-year program, which is open to students nationwide, gives preference to those from Connecticut.

"When I heard about the program, I couldn't pass it up," says Rourke, who was one of the top graduates at Avon High School. "I've been focused on a medical career ever since I was little. Not many schools offer this."

Dolan Evanovich, associate provost for enrollment management, says the program attracts highly motivated students like Rourke. "Megan and the four other freshmen are outstanding examples of the high achieving, multi-talented students that we are able to attract through this program," he says. "We are extremely pleased to have them at the University."

"I've always been interested in science," says Rourke, who was president of her class for four years. During the summers of her high school freshman and sophomore year, Rourke worked as a volunteer in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford. She started by helping with paperwork, but that soon changed.

"Once they realized my interest, they invited me into the operating rooms," she says. There Rourke observed catheterizations - a diagnostic procedure involving the injection of dye into a patient to highlight potential heart problems, watched monitors, and prepared IV tubing and plastic bags to cover surgical sites. "The staff had no idea that I was only a high school freshman. They thought I was a medical school student," she says.

Rourke says her experience at the hospital strengthened her resolve to become a cardiac surgeon. But, something else happened two years later that would clinch that decision.

In 1999, her father had gone to the doctor for a physical, when it was discovered that his aortic valve had nearly collapsed. He had emergency surgery the next day to replace the valve. Coincidentally, Rourke found herself back at St. Francis Hospital. It was strange going back there under those circumstances, she says. Rourke's father died of heart complications in February of this year.

Mourning the loss of her father, Rourke continued working on the senior project she had started months earlier. The topic was the evolution of cardiac surgery. "I focused primarily on where cardiac surgery is going in the future," she says. "European medical centers have been using minimally invasive robots to perform surgery for several years. Although only a few U.S. hospitals now use these robots, more hospitals are expected to use them in the future."

One of her mentors for the project was Peter Deckers, dean of the UConn School of Medicine and executive vice president for health affairs.

"Megan is an outstanding scholar/athlete with an exceptionally mature sense of community need and responsiveness," says Dr. Deckers. "She is a role model of academic excellence, integrity and commitment who is almost a legend in this town among her peers, indeed with all at any level who have had the pleasure of interacting with her."

Rourke says her family and spirituality have seen her through the tougher times. And for Rourke, that's where the heart comes in again. "It's a vital and complex organ, but there's also the metaphoric reasoning: love and healing come from the heart."

Sherry Fisher

Other students in the program are:
Erika Avery, Seymour High School
Dhwani Gandhi, Mercy High School, Middletown
Barbara Salazar, Brookfield High School
Ryan Stapler, North Kingstown Senior High School, Rhode Island (dental program)

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