Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

On Halloween, Medical Schools Celebrate and Educate

Published in the October 2010 AAMC Reporter

—By Whitney L. J. Howell, special to the Reporter

When Jennifer Bartlotti and Brian Telesz returned to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) on Oct. 20, 2008, the area around campus resembled a war zone. Hurricane Ike had raged through Galveston, Texas, felling trees, knocking down stoplights, and ripping up street signs. But Bartlotti, Telesz, and several of their fellow medical students did not focus on when they would return to class. Their first concern was that Galveston’s children would be unable to celebrate Halloween.

“We knew the kids needed a safe place to have fun on Halloween,” said Bartlotti, now a fourth-year student at UTMB. “It was a huge undertaking, but in 10 days, we put together a great event.”

Although they only had a few days to gather supplies and prepare, Telesz said UTMB students were able to assemble a full-fledged Halloween carnival.

“Everyone was falling over themselves wanting to do something for the community,” said Telesz, also now a fourth-year student. “Most of the students enjoyed the games and events just as much as the kids.”

UTMB is one of several medical schools to host Halloween celebrations in their areas. Some are for medical

UTMB students held a limbo contest for costumed trick-or-treaters during last year’s Halloween carnival and costume contest.

students, while others are for the communities. Some incorporate festivities into clinical service programs already provided to various groups. Some are educational, and some focus on simply having fun. But all blend health information with the tricks and treats.


Every October, Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) students build a large haunted house and maze in the school’s courtyard for more than 500 children and their families. The youths also participate in arts and crafts and pumpkin bowling, but according to Terri Babineau, director of the EVMS office of student community outreach, children also learn about health professions and healthy living through career mentoring and health education.

Various departments at Oregon Health and Science University join together for Halloween parties and contests. The molecular and medical genetics department often follows a costume theme, focusing one year on Dolly the Sheep. Organizers say it is a way for incredibly busy students and faculty to blow off steam.

In Galveston, the UTMB Halloween carnival has become an annual fixture, with students spending up to $2,000 on supplies and countless hours working with local businesses to secure prize donations. To drum up attendance, they cover the communities surrounding campus with nearly 1,500 fliers. The result: more than 500 children and their parents attend the carnival.

Special games teach children about the parts of the body. There is also trick-or-treating for books, and parents can look through donated clothes, said Michael H. Malloy, M.D., professor of pediatrics and UTMB’s assistant dean of Oslerian education. As much as the families enjoy the event, medical students learn an equal amount by planning the activities and socializing with the carnival attendees. First- and second-year students are responsible for the majority of carnival planning. Third- and fourth-year students function mainly as student mentors.

“They learn the importance of trying to be part of the community as a physician,” Malloy said. “It promotes the concept of community service that we stress in all of the student societies at UTMB.”

Halloween is not the sole property of the lower 48. Though the October weather may not be very crisp on the Hawaiian island of Manoa, students at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) recently added Halloween festivities to the health services they provide at three local homeless shelters. The shelters house between 250 to 300 people, including between 80 and 130 children.

“The students wanted to start the carnival because a shelter isn’t conducive to trick-or-treating,” said Jill S. Omori, M.D., director of the school’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Education project. “They hold a costume contest for the kids, and all the games are health-related.”

For example, in the “Knock out Tobacco” game, JABSOM students paint cardboard boxes to look like cigarette packs; and children toss balls to knock them over. To emphasize dental health, the carnival offers a game for children to push out Frankenstein’s bad teeth. Many of the prizes help reinforce the games’ lessons, such as the toothbrush and toothpaste prizes for the Frankenstein game.


The EVMS art therapy department provides arts and crafts for the more than 500 children and families who attend the annual Halloween carnival.


For many of the children, these carnivals are their only opportunity to learn good health behaviors, and they are more receptive to the messages because they come from the same students who give them regular health care, said Rita Martin, community relations coordinator for the United States Veterans Initiative’s Waianae Civic Center.

“The students show our kids that doctors are child-friendly and aren’t rigid,” Martin said. “They’re not just health professionals, they are friends to these children. They have a happy, good relationship.”

Solid relationships between medical students and children in the shelters play an important part in how the children develop into adults and how they approach their careers, said Max Gray, program coordinator at the Kaka’ako Shelter.

“The carnival is a good chance for the kids, most of whom have had rough childhoods, to see responsible, mature, knowledgeable adults that they normally see in a professional environment letting their hair down and having fun,” Gray said. “It’s excellent role modeling. It shows the kids that you can have a good time and still be professional.”

Halloween fun is not only for young children, however.  Approximately 300 University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) David Geffen School of Medicine students celebrate the holiday annually. Each year’s theme changes, including a Halloween hoe-down in 2008. As with UTMB, most participants are first- and second-year students.

According to Meredith Szumski, UCLA director of student affairs, students dress in costumes to attend classes, relax at a schoolwide picnic, and play games. The day is designed to be a stress reliever for the students and give them an opportunity to showcase their medical knowledge.

The highlight of UCLA’s festivities is a pumpkin-carving contest in which participants use surgical tools to create their designs, and faculty judge the entrants based on creativity and finesse with the scalpel.

“The day is part of our school’s attempt to preserve the students’ well-being,” she said. “We want them to remember the good parts about being a physician.”


October 10, 2010 - Posted by | Education, Healthcare | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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