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Growing Our Own

This article was first published in the 2019 Vail Health Magazine.

With a high demand for skilled health care workers, Vail Health offers numerous opportunities that both inspire and educate local talent from an early age and support new professionals just breaking into the field. Whether it’s igniting that initial spark to propel a high school student into the medical field or empowering recent graduates to continue learning on the job, Vail Health is preparing the health care leaders of tomorrow right here in Eagle County today.

High School Programs
Vail Health engages students at Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley high schools through several programs aimed at getting them interested in the medical field. Christine Albertson, community outreach and events manager for Vail Health, says it’s a great eye-opening experience for young people. “There are so many fields and career paths they don’t yet know about,” she explains.

Given that so many students worry about the cost of college, Vail Health makes a point to explain how many health care jobs don’t require a four-year degree. “There are other ways to land good paying jobs in the industry without being saddled with debt. They can go into the Associate Degree in Nursing program at Colorado Mountain College, for instance, become a surgical technician or get their EMT license,” says Albertson.

For sophomore and junior high school students wanting a taste of what a clinical job would look like, Vail Health offers two job shadow tours each semester. Students visit six different hospital departments during the four-hour tour, including the Emergency Department, Imaging, the Patient Care Unit, Surgical Services, the Laboratory and the Pharmacy.

Vail Health also offers a two-hour tour of the Urgent Care in Gypsum, which gives students a more hands-on experience. They work with EMTs, nurses and physician assistants to learn how to draw an IV, put in a breathing tube, take an X-ray and make up a chemotherapy bag.

Howard Head Internship
18-year old Summer Kenney became interested in the field of sports medicine after taking an athletic trainer class at Battle Mountain High School. Her counselor suggested she apply for the Howard Head Sports Medicine internship program. “I knew what physical therapy consisted of, but the program opened my eyes to so much more,” she reflects. “I shadowed at three clinics in Vail, Edwards and Avon. It was important to shadow as many different therapists as I could since they all have their own techniques. I was able to see what they all do differently.”

Kenney says she also enjoyed observing all the different therapy types, including occupational therapy, pediatric therapy and hand therapy. “I also got to work in the Emergency Department to experience a fasterpaced environment. One day we had 18 ACL tears. It was fascinating to see how fast they diagnosed it, got them in a brace and showed them their pre-surgery exercises. I’m only 18 years old and I already know how to diagnose an ACL or MCL tear!”

Kenney plans to study health and exercise science at Colorado State University. “I think it’s really important that Eagle County offers these types of programs. It allows students like me to decide whether this is really what I want to do.”

CareerX pairs Eagle County youth with local businesses, enabling them to explore careers, learn about local businesses, and develop college and career plans that fit their interests. Eagle County is one of the few mountain regions offering this statewide program and has modeled its program after ones in Denver. 

Amanda Spannagel, CareerX coordinator for Eagle County Schools, says Vail Health outshines with its realworld offerings. “Students start to realize they don’t have to become a doctor or a nurse to be in the medical field. They can start on a different path and see if it’s something they like,” she adds.

Another new program, CareerWise, is offered through a collaboration with the Vail Valley Partnership. This program is geared toward students who are planning to go into the health care field and have a specific idea of what direction they want to take. These students get paid and will work with Vail Health for three years, starting with 12 hours per week for the first year, increasing to 24 hours per week for the second year and 36 hours per week the third year.

“Vail Health has joined the Vail Valley Partnership in offering CareerWise because we want to be on the cutting edge of building our own local skilled and loyal workforce,” says Chief Administrative Officer Rick Smith, who oversees Vail Health’s Human Resources department. “This program allows us to work with a few student apprentices to combine their theoretical learning with practical learning, which helps to focus their educational and career objectives.”

Colorado Mountain College Surgical Tech Program 
Everyone in Michaela Mitchell’s family has some sort of medical background, so she knew health care was most likely in her future after graduating from Coal Ridge High School in New Castle, but she just didn’t know exactly what it would be. Originally working as an autotransfusionist, Mitchell found herself in the operating room watching the surgical technicians and immediately knew that’s what she wanted to do. “I loved how they were always one step ahead of the surgeon, being able to anticipate what the surgeon would need ahead of time,” she explains.

Thanks to a partnership with Colorado Mountain College and Front Range Community College, Vail Health gives students like Mitchell the opportunity to pursue a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in the field of surgical technology at Colorado Mountain College’s Edwards campus. Mitchell started the program in January 2019 and will be graduating in December 2019.

With world-renowned orthopaedics and some of the best general surgeons in Colorado performing a variety of operations at Vail Valley Surgery Centers in Vail and Edwards, surgical technicians get invaluable experience and assist patients directly in their care. 

As a surgical technologist, Mitchell will play an integral role in the operating room. Some of her job tasks will include preparing the patient and operating room for surgeries, passing sterilized equipment and tools to the surgeons, assisting the surgical team by holding organs in place, dressing the wound after surgery, and transferring the patient to the recovery room. “It’s much more hands-on than my previous job,” adds Mitchell.

By educating locals who have already made Eagle County their home, Vail Health has a better chance at attracting and retaining employees who understand the unique challenges and opportunities of living in the High Country.

Steadman Philippon Research Institute Internship
Brenton Douglass decided to take a gap year between his 3rd and 4th year of medical school at the University of Minnesota so that he could work as a research assistant in the Steadman Philippon Research Institute (SPRI) Biomedical Engineering (BME) Robotics Lab. “I’m very interested in orthopaedic sports medicine, so this was a perfect time for me to take a step back and further my education in a different way,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do something with mobility. It’s very important to people. It affects every aspect of their life. Being in a position where you can fix that for someone, it’s very powerful.”

Right now, Douglass is studying the potential for new surgical techniques to protect ACL grafts from rerupturing after reconstruction. “Every time I dissect a different joint, I can make sure I know my anatomy really well. Spending a year learning all the anatomy is going to put me ahead.”

Travis Turnbull, deputy director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at SPRI, says not only is SPRI’s internship program a great way to attract and groom future employees, but the research assistants are essential to the work they do. “There are some really strong, bright minds here in our local community and elsewhere. We not only expose them to research they may not have known existed, but also provide an opportunity for them to see that there’s high level medicine happening right here in the mountains.”

Vail Health Nurse Residency Program
Vail Health implemented a 12-month nurse residency program in 2018 to address the looming nursing shortage. Transition to Practice Program Coordinator Amy Lavigne explains, “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. And in a small community, we feel that even more. We just don’t have a large pool of nurses to pull from like the larger cities do. Our area’s higher living expenses, cost of housing and weather deter people from wanting to live here, and that has a huge impact.”

The program brings newly graduated nurses into five areas of the hospital: the Patient Care Unit, Intensive Care Unit, Surgical Services, Emergency Department and Family Birth Center. Nurse residents spend three months in an intensive clinical immersion phase and the remaining nine months focused on professional development.

“We’ve taken new grads in the past, but it’s been very few and far between,” says Lavigne. “We were worried about them getting the experience they needed to be competent and independent. This program ensures that it’s done right and will increase the number of applicants.

Not many organizations the size of Vail Health have a Transition to Practice program. Just having the program in and of itself is a recruitment strategy.”

Lavigne says they hope to grow the Transition to Practice program to other specialties and disciplines at the hospital. “When you give through a really good program like this, it creates a level of loyalty. The nurse residents see how much we care about them and how much we recognize the difficulty of transitioning into an independent nursing practice. In exchange, we get a return on our investment and better care for our patients.”

Eric Blitzstein and Susy Dozier are the two nurse residents in the program’s latest cohort, which started in March 2019. They are both Eagle County residents who went back to nursing school in hopes of building a career in Eagle County.

Originally from Peru, Dozier came to the Valley 10 years ago. “It was my dream to become a nurse,” she remarks. “I started taking classes at CMC and one of my instructors told me about the Vail Health residency program. For me, it was a no-brainer. We’ve established a life here in Eagle County. It was a way to keep my family here and not have to commute or move to Denver. I have a son and we didn’t want him to have to change schools. I don’t see myself living anywhere else.” Dozier looks forward to giving back to her community and helping people heal.

“People don’t go to the hospital because they want to, but because they need something from us. It’s very rewarding to be the person to hold their hand and help them through a difficult experience.”

Dozier says as a new nurse, it’s sometimes hard to open up and ask questions. “But when others are coming up to you, it’s easier to ask. Every nurse has been amazing and are so willing to show me things.”

Eric Blizstein grew up in the Philadelphia area and moved to Eagle County in 1992. He worked for 27 years as a Beaver Creek Ski Patroller. “In my past experience, I enjoyed being the patient advocate,” he says. “I like being in tough situations and wanted to take it to a new level.”

Blizstein recently attended CU Denver and earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree through an accelerated BSN program. His wife and two young kids stayed in Edwards while he attended school. “Continuing to live in Eagle County was always the goal,” he says. “I was certainly concerned about moving and commuting. I really wanted to work in a community that I had grown to love so much.”

Blizstein says he feels fortunate. “I knew I wanted to make ends meet here but it’s tough when housing is 50% of your income. I’m thankful Vail Health is recognizing there are people right here in the community who will make great professionals in this industry.”

Learn more:  For more information regarding any of our programs, please contact Christine Albertson at

Steadman Philippon Research Institute →
Howard Head Sports Medicine →
Eagle County Schools - CareerX →
Colorado Mountain College - Surgical Technologist →
CareerWise Colorado →