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The Life-like Experience Inside UVA's Nursing Simulation Lab

A new crop of student-nurses started their studies at the University of Virginia this month – taking classes and making use of a newly expanded laboratory where they’ll learn how to care for patients without putting anyone at risk. 

Shannon Birmingham and Madison McMahon are nursing students who have yet to encounter real patients according to UVA administrator Bethany Coyne. “They’ve done a lot of practice in the lab, on each other, but it’s very intimidating to go interact with a real live person for the first time.”

So today, they’re going to practice on people they’ve never met.  The man in the bed is a volunteer portraying a grumpy patient, and the two young women are learning that unhappy people are par for the hospital course.

"Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable right now," one of the students asks? 

"Yeah, you can get out of my room and let me sleep,” the volunteer responds.

The technical part of the job – actually providing medical care – can be even more challenging.  There are so many things that can go wrong, which is why Bethany Coyne says simulation is such a great teaching tool. “There’s a very extensive debrief after the simulation.  That’s where a lot of the learning actually occurs. That’s one of the benefits for simulation is students will make mistakes in simulation and learn from their mistakes in a low risk situation. 

And students can experience a wide range of situations that might not occur often in a clinical setting thanks to a team of hi-tech mannequins. They cost between $10,000 and $100,000. But Ryne Ackard, director of the simulation lab, says they earn their keep.  “They breathe. They can do heart sounds, lung sounds, bowel sounds. They can urinate, they can cry, they can froth at the mouth, they can sweat.  We also have a pregnant mannequin, which is one of the students’ favorites.  She gives birth multiple times during the semester.”

Some of these so-called high fidelity simulators even bleed.  Others have seizures or lose control of muscles in the face, as a person might after a stroke, and from the control room Ackard speaks for them using software that modifies his voice to reflect age and gender.  “We have headphones at the computers, and then we act for the mannequins, and there’s some voice modulation, so I can be a pregnant woman for example, or I can be a five-year-old.”

UVA nursing students work in the lab.

But with just 11 mannequins and a limited amount of space, the nursing school wouldn’t be able to accommodate larger classes until a major donor stepped up, writing a check for $20 million – the largest gift the nursing school had ever received. 

That money will allow the school to buy more simulators and to double the laboratory space as its program expands.  That could also boost demand for volunteers like 80-year-old Peter Griffin who’s played dozens of roles during eight years on the job. “It’s a lot of fun coming in to play the role with the students," Griffin says.  "We get, not a word-for-word script, but we get a situation that we have to present.  It could be something as complicated as a stroke, or it could be something like this.  I’m comfortable, and there’s nothing they can do.  They just have to go through their checklist.”

And the students agree that this hands-on learning is what they need to prepare for real world situations.  Again, Shannon Birmingham and Madison McMahon. “It feels better each time we do it.  It just feels more natural.” “I think it’s good practice, because in the real world you’re going to be dealing with people who have all sorts of attitudes.  What they’re going through can’t be easy.”

The $20 million grant will also allow UVA’s nursing school to expand enrollment – awarding bachelor’s degrees to 1,000 additional students in the next ten years, offering classes in Richmond and Northern Virginia, and proving scholarships so  new nurses won’t be in debt and can begin careers with a singular purpose – to care for patients. 

***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief