After receiving her bachelor’s degree in May, Marimo Oka ’22, M.S. ’23, traveled to New York to begin an internship that was two years in the making.
During her sophomore year, Oka — who majored in biochemistry and molecular biology with a concentration in health, science, and society — was accepted into the Emergency Medicine Project Healthcare Summer Volunteer Program at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Health in New York. She had learned about the opportunity through Clark’s Pre-med Advising Program, and also received a ClarkCONNECT Summer Internship Award to support her experience.
She was set to complete her internship in summer 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to suspend all participation until 2021 — and then until 2022. Finally, between completing her undergraduate degree and starting her accelerated master’s in the same field, she was able to get to the busy emergency department of NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.
For four days each week, Oka spent her five-hour shifts rotating between the adult, pediatric, and psychiatric emergency rooms, and had the opportunity to observe surgery and go on an ambulance ride-along. The fifth day was spent in different learning activities, such as a social medicine course, physician lectures, medical student panels, and suture class, which she says was one of her most memorable experiences.
Oka was one of 12 Project Healthcare patient advocates at the Brooklyn hospital; another 40 interns worked at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. During her internship, Oka lived in a New York University residence hall, and commuted to Brooklyn by ferry.
As a patient advocate, Oka was a visible presence in the emergency department. “I spent time walking around, checking in with patients, and also introducing myself to the nurses, to let them know I was available,” Oka says. She also made sure to connect with patients’ families. “We made sure the family members are not overlooked — many of them are full-time caretakers and are exhausted. We would bring water, blankets, pillows, and just have a conversation with them.”
On her first shift in the pediatric emergency room, Oka formed a bond with a 7-year-old girl who spoke little English. The girl wanted to draw and color, but the ER’s supply of coloring supplies was low — so Oka gave her own notebook and pen to the patient before searching for more. Seeing the girl’s reaction to receiving a binder of coloring pages and a few crayons gave Oka her first “wow” experience in the ER.
“This little thing that made someone smile was so inspiring to me. Even if we can’t communicate fully, if I’m sincere, they’ll feel it,” she says. Before she left the ER, the little girl presented Oka with a drawing of the two of them together.
Oka didn’t come to Clark intending to go into medicine. She attended high school in Japan, where you’re either on a science or non-science track — and she was in the latter. “I had no interest in science,” she says, “but I came to a liberal arts college, so why not take advantage of it?” After taking introductory courses in biology and chemistry, she was hooked.
Her biochemistry and molecular biology courses were helpful during conversations in the emergency department. “I actively engaged not only with patients, but also with health care professionals. I could ask questions about the reasons behind their treatment choices — it was an extension of the active learning I had at Clark.”
Oka plans to apply to medical school next spring. The process takes a year, so after she completes her master’s, she intends to spend a year working as an EMT. She earned her EMT license in the summer of 2020, when her internship was first postponed. She was a member of the Clark University Rapid Response squad for all four of her undergraduate years — which is what first stoked her interest in emergency medicine.
During her undergraduate career at Clark, Oka also played on the volleyball team (she’ll play her final season this fall) and served as a wellness ambassador.
Project Healthcare was created by Dr. Lewis Goldfrank ’63, former director of emergency services at Bellevue Hospital. Oka wasn’t able to connect with him during her internship, but is looking forward to a virtual meeting at the end of August.