DALLAS -- Some recent high school graduates spend their summers in Hawaii, on the couch, maybe at amusement parks. Ask Athena Samerotte about the highlights of her summer, however, and she'll tell you about gazing upon a human femur.
The thigh bone, no longer connected to any hip bone, lay under glass at a health museum in Washington, D.C. "It was twice the size it should be, due to infection," Samerotte said.
"It was really cool."
Samerotte, who graduated this June from Dallas High School, spent a week of such delights at the National Student Leadership Conference. Participating in the medicine and health conference, she visited medical museums, listened to lectures and debated some of the big questions in the field.
After hearing lectures on medical ethics, participants discussed issues such as assisted suicide, cloning, and use of artificial organs.
Samerotte didn't expect the kind of debate she encountered over artificial hearts. "Half of the people said we need to decrease the population, and heart disease is one way to do it," she said. "Artificial heart now, artificial life later," they argued.
"I wondered why they were going into the medical field if they felt that way," Samerotte said. "You should go in to help people. Who are we to play God? If we can help, we should."
Samerotte has focused her energies on becoming a pediatric oncologist, treating children with cancer. Walking through a 13-year-old friend's cancer treatments inspired Samerotte. "Pediatric oncologists really help people and make a difference in people's lives."
But she realizes successes are only half of the story. "It's hard; kids do die. But if I made a difference in the last five months of life, that's what matters most."
Conference participants watched a video about a man who had been badly burned, to debate the life and death decisions that abound in the health field. "He begged the EMTs to let him die," Samerotte said. "He spent two years in the hospital in intense pain, lost his vision, his left hand and half of his right.
"They asked us, would we have let him die?" Most said they would.
"Then they asked us to think about that happening to a brother or parent," Samerotte said. "Would we make the same decision?"
Most said no.
The conference lecturer then revealed that, 20 years later, married and a successful professional, the man still wishes he had been allowed to die.
Such decisions could make a prospective medical student's head spin. But Samerotte seems to have come to grips with some of the tough choices. "If he wishes to die, that's his choice -- as long as it doesn't involve the medical field," she said.
"The medical field is there to help you live."
She returns to cancer for an example. "It's always possible for miracles," she said, noting that her friend had gone into remission. "You always have to hope and try for the best."
The conference helped give Samerotte a broader picture of medical issues. "You have to be able to step back from your opinions or emotions and see the truth and facts to the other side," she said.
"It's important in the medical field to look at all sides and not just the one you feel strongly about."
Staying at George Mason University in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va., Samerotte had a chance for some sightseeing. She called the Iwo Jima Monument "awing."
"It was a humbling experience to stand in front of it and realize how many soldiers gave their lives, not only for shaping this country, but the world."
But some of her favorite sights were at the Walter Reed Medical Museum: displays on the human body, with actual preserved organs and fetuses. "You get plastic things all the time, but seeing the real thing is amazing," Samerotte said.
To keep from decomposing, some organs had been rubberized. "People tossed around a rubberized stomach. It freaked me out at first, but it was cool. You could see the inside of an actual stomach."
The museum documented the history of medicine and diseases through wars. One display followed the development of the microscope. Another held bones of famous people, including some skulls with bullet holes.
Samerotte saw a bullet removed from Abraham Lincoln.
Healing has appealed to Samerotte as long as she can remember. "It's fascinating to see how the human body works, how doctors heal and help people and fix the problems we face throughout life."
Samerotte will study biochemistry and molecular biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. beginning this fall. "My mom dragged me up there during spring break," she explained. "I was totally against it.
"But I just stepped on campus and felt at peace. I was comfortable and happy; it just seemed like the right place.
"I thought I would go to cross it off my list, but the professors were personable and great. It made it an easy decision."
After she finishes her education, Samerotte wants to volunteer overseas, perhaps for Northwest Medical Teams. "Here, we can still care for children adequately," she explained. "Children in other countries need the opportunity to heal just as we do.
"I want to give them a chance."