ROCHESTER — If you ask 17-year-old aspiring biomedical engineer Jeffrey Radek Jr., of Rochester, how his interest in practicing medicine developed, he might say taking AP Anatomy as a junior at Old Rochester Regional High School is what swayed him before his recent experience at the invitation-only National Youth Leadership Forum: Medicine this summer cast aside any remaining doubt and solidified it. But a mother’s intuition may have picked up on it sooner than he did himself.
“My mom, Jeffrey’s grandmother, was on her way here from Connecticut, and a couple exits away, her SUV flipped over. So in 2019, we spent our entire Christmas in Rhode Island with her critical in the hospital,” recalled Tisha Giles- Radek, Esq., noting her son Jeffrey was 15-years-old at the time. “When I took Jeffrey with me to see her the first time, he helped me clean the blood and the glass from my mom’s head. Her skull was stapled up, she had 2 to 3 days worth of blood caked on, but none of that bothered him. And my mom’s like ‘Sorry, I don’t want to scare you,’ and he said ‘No, not at all, grandma.’
“So all this triggered something in my head like, OK, we need to take his interests very seriously. He was so comfortable in this medical setting — even the nurses were blown away.”
So, earlier this year when the Radeks unexpectedly received word in the mail that Jeffrey had been invited to stay at Tufts University in Medford for an exclusive 10-day program that offered hands-on medical experience not often extended to high school students, Giles-Radek knew it was an opportunity her son couldn’t afford to miss.
“My husband and I are both very far from the sciences, and all his friends are interested in other things, so I’m like OK, we should do this program to see if this is what you really want to do,” Giles- Radek said. “It was expensive, but it was worth it…. Where else was he going to get this experience?”
Giles-Radek noted that staff at ORRHS had to have nominated her son for inclusion in the program, but they are still not sure who it was.
10 days at Tufts University
“It’s something you don’t forget,” said Jeffrey Radek describing seeing, and touching, donated human hearts and lungs — one of many firsts the rising ORRHS senior experienced while at Tufts from June 23 to July 1. “It was surreal.”
Radek said every day at the program was packed with a full schedule of activities. “One day we did simulations where we created splints, slings; we learned phlebotomy — we practiced on both a large vein and a small vein — and we used physical models with this fake blood, so if you did it wrong, you’d get it all over you,” he said. “We learned how to stop someone’s bleeding using these prosthetic arms, which was messy, but it was great practice, and we also covered how to check if the scene is safe.
“That same day, we also witnessed two live surgeries: one man had colon cancer and it was about removing cancer from someone’s liver, and the second one was someone who had prostate cancer, so those were both very interesting.”
But the more action-packed learning that took place was only one component of the program. Radek says daily opportunities to sit down with health care professionals from an array of medical fields and at various stages in their careers have helped firm up the vision he has for his own future. “I learned a lot about residency from talking to a lot of people who went through it or are in one now. I had known some people who’ve gone through residency but I didn’t have a clear idea of what goes on,” he said.
There was also an element of social awareness strung through it all, which Radek says he appreciated. “We did these group presentations on the people our groups were named after. Mine was the ‘Drew group,’ named after Dr. Charles Richard Drew who was part of the creation of blood banks during World War II and also a big part of the Civil Rights Movement,” Radek said, noting the irony of Drew’s death after being refused a blood transfusion because of his race. “So, being a Black man who wants to be part of medicine, it was great to know I was with people who believed in the same things I do.”
COVID vaccines made an impression
When it comes to his specific area of interest, biomedical engineering, Radek says academic experiences in school primed him for it, and the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) at Tufts confirmed for him that entering this area of medicine would be his career goal.
“I think it probably started in 8th grade when I started enjoying science classes more than anything else. Then as the years went on, I got into chemistry in sophomore year, which got me interested in learning about atoms and molecular science. Then I think the anatomy class in junior year is really what sold me,” Radek said, also noting his junior year AP Biology class as a contributing factor. “But also, I’m not a person who just jumps straight into a 12-foot pool — I like to dip my feet in first — and I feel like that’s exactly what (the NYLF) allowed me to do.”
When it comes to what he finds inspiring about his chosen field, Radek says growing up in the age of COVID and the development of vaccines for it has made an impression on him about the important role biomedical engineering plays in people’s lives. “That’s the kind of difference I want to be able to make,” he said. “When you think of pandemics, you think of this sense of fear, and what I think is so great about these scientists and professors is that they’re fearless and brave enough to just dive right into the mouth of the beast and come face to face. face with these diseases. … To be part of that is just a dream of mine.”
Students at Tufts shared his interests
Aside from the knowledge and practice acquired throughout the 10 days at Tufts, Radek says another definitive gain was the camaraderie he found when placed around peers who shared his interests.
“I think a lot of people my age are not extremely sure of what they want to get into, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I mean, that’s why it was just a great experience to be part of something with people who were so sure of what they wanted, and so interested in what they were doing,” he said, noting having made new friends from all over the country.
“When I arrived on campus to pick Jeffrey up it was so awesome to see him around students who were like him, who want to make a difference, who want to be a part of making cures and medicine,” Giles-Radek said. “He’s an excellent baseball player like his brother, he has friends, he’s very sociable, but when he came to his interests in math and science, he always felt alone.”
A clear path
Currently, Radek says he isn’t quite sure what college he wants to go to, but as fall approaches, his list of top choices is approaching final form. And while Tufts University is on the high end of that list when it comes to tuition costs, he says after his stay there, it’s hard not to think about what it would be like to attend full-time.
“I’ve only scratched the surface of what Tufts is like … but it’s definitely bumped itself way up on my list,” he said. “I think what I’m going to do is go to college for four years, then I’ll probably try to get more experience in the field for another year, then do the boards and the MCATs, and go to medical school. Then after that is when you do your residency.”
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In the meantime, Radek continues doing research independently as his gears keep turning on how to best make his ultimate goal a reality — now with a much clearer view of the trajectory. “I’ve talked to a lot of people over the phone and had these little interviews with people who are a part of residency, relatives, doctors that I know, my pediatrician,” he said.
“In the beginning I was scared almost about what I was getting into, and now after doing this and meeting all these people, it all seems so much more manageable to go through.”
National Youth Leadership Forum programming offers programs for different age groups and, in addition to medicine, other areas of learning. To learn more, visit envisionexperience.com.