New “man” on campus

Teaching tool simulates real patient

nursing student with simulation man

Nursing student Jessica Frechette ’09 of Sanford, Maine, checks SimMan’s heart rate.

Although most of his time is spent lying corpse-like upon a hospital bed in Mercy Hall, a perfectly proportioned man of rubber springs into life-like action at the flick of a computer switch. He's Saint Joseph's newest teaching tool. He's SimMan.

Accompanied by the occasional drone of an air compressor inflating his plastic-bag lungs, this superhero-of-a-different-sort has his heart (as well as his lungs, bladder and other assorted organs) set on being the eternally "patient" patient for nursing students to practice on before they come face to face with the not-always-so-patient real ones.

And sometimes, just as with other superheroes, that means SimMan must hover on the brink of death. "I can sit here and let his pulse or oxygen level go way down just to see when the student actually realizes it," nursing lab coordinator Amy Dudar says enthusiastically, as she inputs his vital signs. "You can't do that with a real patient."

Manufactured by Laerdal Medical, a company that fulfilled the dreams of many little girls by creating realistic plastic dolls 50 years ago, SimMan is designed to simulate a real patient for the purpose of training health care professionals for clinical and crisis situations. Controlled by easy-to-use software, the mannequin may be programmed by instructors to replicate various heart and lung sounds for students to diagnose.

With this combination of compliant patient and on-demand crisis, a classroom instructor can tailor the learning experience to each student, allowing extra practice where needed. This individualized process reinforces the concepts being taught, giving both instructors and students the confidence that the student has mastered the material and is ready to move on to real patients.

"I can sit here and let his pulse or oxygen level go way down just to see when the student actually realizes it .... You can't do that with a real patient."
- Amy Dudar, nursing
lab coordinator 

And once instruction is completed, SimMan and his software program are designed to evaluate students by videoing their clinical performance as well as tracking their patient assessments - invaluable feedback.

But SimMan isn't all heart (and lungs). He also has adjustable pulse points, bowel sounds, a tongue that swells in reaction to allergies and a voice with 20 pre-programmed phrases.

In fact, if he doesn't like the student's bedside manner, SimMan might even say, "go away."

But, better to hear it from a mannequin now than from a real patient later on.

On the day Dudar's and Gail Marchigiano's junior nursing students first meet SimMan, an air of intensity fills the room as each pair of future nurses take turns listening to his heart and lungs. And even though they all know they are hearing computer-generated sounds and rhythms, an air of burgeoning assurance infuses the class as stethoscopes are pressed to his heaving chest.

With each pair that examined him, Marchigiano asks questions: "What do you hear? Where do you hear it? How does it sound?"

"I can't seem to hear anything unusual," one student answers apologetically.

"Good," Marchigiano replies quickly. "That patient's sounds are normal."

Mollie Oxton, a junior from Bath, Maine, says working on SimMan makes her relax and feel more confident about her skills. "I really like listening to the lung sounds, because that's an area I have problems in," she says.

And Jenna Stewart, also a junior, from Dennis, Mass., thought he would "take the edge off."

"I think he is going to be very helpful as a beginning tool for students to figure out lung and heart sounds when assessing a patient," she says.

During the year, the class will move on to assess wounds and other traumas that SimMan will stoically endure for the students. He comes with plastic bins piled with easy-to-apply rubber wounds and exposed-bone fractures - many of them dripping blood - that would rival those offered by any Halloween shop. With other spare parts contained in one of those treasure chests, if needed, "he" can even convert to "she."

It's even rumored that SimMan may turn into family man, as the nursing staff hopes eventually to acquire SimWoman, who gives birth to SimBaby.

SimMan, along with his hospital bed and bedside table, cost about $40,000 - more than $15,000 of which was provided by gifts from Board members, alumni and a grant from the Vincent and Barbara Welch Foundation of Portland, Maine. But the practical experience he will provide to the school's nursing students transcends the price tag. "Simulations allow students to analyze data and make choices - and see the outcome of those choices - in a setting where there is no risk," says Dudar.

She and Marchigiano are, of course, delighted by this "heartthrob" that's theirs to control. expressing their attachment, Marchigiano says simply, "He's everything we thought he'd be."

by Peggy Roberts

Peggy Roberts is a freelance writer who lives in Falmouth, Maine.