The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 14, 2021 1:00 am

Fake patients, real symptoms

Lifelike mannequins teach lifesaving lessons to future nurses

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Every nursing student eventually must take the same terrifying leap.

They go from reading about irregular heartbeats and fluid-filled lungs to placing a stethoscope against a sick patient's chest and listening for the serious medical conditions.

Jeremy Kirkwood tries to make that transition easier.

He runs the Indiana University Fort Wayne Simulation and Skills Center, which includes two hospital-like rooms outfitted with two patient beds each. Lying in those beds are lifelike mannequins clothed in hospital gowns.

Vivian, who was made by the same special effects studio that works on the James Bond films, is the exact replica of a British woman in her 70s, Kirkwood said. While leading an informal tour, he pointed out one side of Vivian's jaw droops and her silica-polymer skin is dotted unevenly with liver spots, just like the person she was modeled from.

IU's nursing students practice bed baths and other patient care on Vivian, one of only a few such models in the world, Kirkwood said.

“We want them to have that emotional connection” to patients, he said. “We want to bring simulation to every single course it is applicable to.”

Vivian weighs about 90 pounds, which is realistic for a woman of her size, and has shoulder-length gray hair.

Baby boom

Her roommate is Victoria, a “pregnant” mannequin with her legs in stirrups, ready for childbirth. The mannequin is so sophisticated that it can push out a replica baby, allowing students to practice delivery complications, including an infant who emerges feet first and one whose shoulder gets hung up in the birth canal.

Nursing students can even practice an emergency C-section on Victoria, a mannequin model that sells for about $70,000, Kirkwood said.

He often works from an electronics control center that separates the lab's two simulated hospital rooms, allowing students to practice patient care without an instructor standing over them. The lab is housed in the Liberal Arts Building on the Purdue University Fort Wayne campus.

The mannequins can be programmed to perform basic movements, including blinking their eyes, following students with their gaze and mimicking breathing. But that's just the beginning.

Kirkwood can program Victoria's pupil size to mimic someone who has suffered traumatic brain injury. Students who are assigned to evaluate the patient after a car crash are expected to pick up on the symptom.

Victoria can also speak 12 languages. “The baby's coming! It feels like I'm tearing,” is among the things she says in English. Sometimes Kirkwood prompts the mannequin to speak in another language so students can learn to deal with communication barriers.

When the training situation calls for it, he can also use a control room microphone to make the mannequins “say” specific statements.

Victoria is hooked to a monitor that Kirkwood programs to allow students to learn how to track her contractions. The mannequin infant being born can move its head and is attached to an umbilical cord that can be clamped by students, he said. A preemie mannequin allows students to practice suctioning lungs and other respiratory procedures.

In another room are two male mannequins, which cost from $30,000 to $50,000 each. The simulation lab has masks that fit snugly over the full mannequin's head and chest to let students practice on patients of different races and ages. Masks are a relative bargain at about $2,000 each.

“We want to have our simulations mirror what the community is and what our students will encounter,” Kirkwood said.

IU's nursing students were on spring break last week and unavailable for interviews.

Doing outreach

Kirkwood named the original male mannequin Wayne Fortier, a play on Fort Wayne. A mask that transforms the mannequin into a grandfather type in his early 80s is called Grand Wayne.

An infant mannequin, dubbed Little Wayne, simulates heart, bowel and lung sounds, allowing students to practice identifying various medical conditions.

“He also can have a seizure,” Kirkwood said, adding the movements can be programmed for both arms or just one.

The baby mannequin, which is about the size of a 6-month-old, is one of the props IU nursing school staff takes to public events, including Tapestry, the annual celebration of women. After encountering the mini-robot, some children get excited about the idea of pursuing a career in health care, Kirkwood said.

The simulation lab has also sponsored a middle school robotics team that won a state competition, he said.

“They loved it because they came in and saw how they could help the other sciences through robotics,” he added.

Kirkwood enjoys community outreach, but he's dedicated to training the next generation of IU-educated nurses. He has created virtual simulations to allow quarantined students to continue learning during pandemic restrictions.

And he supplements the mannequins by using programmable stethoscopes to mimic irregular heart sounds students are asked to diagnose. The thump-thumps can be heard only when the student listens to the correct spot on a living volunteer's chest.

Sometimes Kirkwood offers himself up for the practice exam.

“They might walk out of that room and think I have a major heart condition,” he said, “and I don't have to go out and find someone with a major heart condition” for students to practice on.

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