Northern Essex Community College’s High Tech Mannequins Help Students Learn to Save Lives
The call wasn’t out of the ordinary — a 67-year-old male at a rehab facility was experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. The four paramedics who responded checked his medical history, administered aspirin, and provided oxygen to help him breathe. Then the situation deteriorated rapidly.
“It hurts,” the patient moaned. “I can’t breathe.” The heart monitor he was connected to began to malfunction, making it impossible for his rescuers to get an accurate reading. Within seconds, the man went into cardiac arrest.
Luckily the paramedics stayed calm. Using chest compressions, drugs, and finally electric shock, they managed to revive their patient — just in time for the next class at Northern Essex Community College to practice on him.
The “patient” — nicknamed Stan — is a high-fidelity simulator or mannequin that sweats, blinks and bleeds. Students who train on him can insert a chest tube, check a pulse, staunch a wound, even intubate him if necessary. A speaker inside the mannequin allows an instructor in another room to be its voice. Eerily lifelike, Stan — modeled after a Navy SEAL — helps future first responders and current EMTs seeking additional training to hone their skills before they ever face an actual crisis.
Of the nine mannequins the college owns, Stan is the most high-tech. He’s used a lot, but not just by the paramedic classes. Students training to become sleep and radiation technologists, and medical assistants use him to learn how to handle real-life situations, ranging from medical crises to daily care. He’s also used to simulate scenarios that require cultural awareness, including when he poses as a patient suspected of being a victim of domestic abuse.
“If people haven’t seen him before, it can take them aback because he’s so lifelike,” says Rory Putnam, an EMS clinical coordinator and paramedic instructor at the college.
But such realistic detailing doesn’t come cheap. Stan cost about $80,000, according to Nancy Harnois, the college’s technical lab coordinator. And at about a year old, he’s already not the latest model.
“It’s overwhelming how fast the technology is changing,” Harnois says.
But the college is working hard to keep up. This fall, when the health education operations move into the $27.4 million El Hefni Health & Technology Center in Lawrence, students will be working on what Harnois calls the “Cadillac” of high-tech mannequins. Priced at about $200,000, the new model is so realistic that a pillow over his face could actually cause him to “suffocate.” And the state of the art facilities will include an ambulance, craned in before the building was constructed, so first responders can get a sense of what it’s like to work on patients under stressful conditions.
For now, though, students who work on Stan have few complaints. Those who are in the paramedic program are all certified emergency medical technicians, and even though the four who responded to Stan’s cardiac crisis all hold jobs as EMTs, practicing on the mannequin provides valuable experience, they say.
“The scope of what we can practice as an EMT is so limited,” says Seth Rohrer, 23, of Lowell. “We can see and observe at work, but in this program we actually get to practice what we see in the field.”
The mannequins also allow students to experience unusual circumstances that could be life-threatening if not treated correctly, Harnois says. As an example, she cites tension pneumothorax, a condition that might occur during a trauma, such as a car accident. In this situation, a lung has been punctured and is leaking air into the chest cavity. The pressure keeps the lungs from inflating, and can only be relieved by inserting a needle directly into the chest wall. Harnois says the situation is rare — a paramedic could have a 20-year career without seeing it — but knowing how to respond quickly, if it happens, is critical.
“We try to throw things at them they might not see very often in the field, but that may cross their paths someday,” Harnois says. “Hopefully if that day comes, they’ll be able to remember what they learned and say ‘this is what I was trained to do.’ ”
Northern Essex Community College El Hefni Health & Technology Center
Lawrence, Mass. / NECC.Mass.edu