A mock triage center comes to life as a paramedic student slips on a pair of virtual reality goggles and the mannequin in front of her begins to flail in pain.
“Adam,” as he is affectionately known by some of the students, is an interactive medical mannequin. He is just one of the advanced tools Tyler Junior College uses to train future paramedics. The dummies can be set to act out virtually any medical emergency imaginable, as the VR goggles create a digital overlay on top of the physical mannequin.
“My stomach,” it cries, reaching for the student before curling into a ball in pain on the stretcher.
Students work quickly to diagnose the symptoms before they lose their patient. Once he’s diagnosed, Adam is moved to a full-size ambulance simulator, complete with flashing lights.
The action is fast, forcing students to think on their feet. Paramedic instructor Scott Miles said he was at first skeptical of the setup, but once he saw the way students were reacting to the stress of the environment, he knew it would help build their skills before they took on clinicals. Miles said a lot has changed since he got his start more than 30 years ago.
“In 1986, everything we did was to a human,” he said. “They might be able to act it out, but there’s no physiological change.”
The mannequins his course employs can bleed, turn blue from lack of oxygen and even give birth. The simulator, he said, gives him the freedom to teach the students to tackle the atypical.
Miles said he was sold on the system when two visiting students passed out because the simulation was so realistic.
“At that point, I thought maybe it does bring something to the experience,” he said.
The paramedic certification is a one-year course that requires long hours and gives a wealth of experience reacting to simulated and real medical emergencies. Students are on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. two days per week and must complete more than 500 clinical hours for their certification. Many already are working a job as a firefighter or in the medical field.
Many already in the field are looking to improve their credentials in order to move up the career ladder. The current class has firefighters, EMTs and nurses working alongside students looking to start their career.
Students spend the morning on course work and lecture, before moving into simulations after lunch. Miles tries to make sure that whatever they’re discussing during lecture is what they’re learning hands-on that afternoon.
Army veteran Jessie Willis, 32, said he’s been working as an EMT but wanted to use his GI Bill to further his education.
“It’s been really positive overall,” he said. “It’s a lot. You don’t really grasp (the pace) until you go through it. The sheer amount of information you have to process (can be overwhelming), but you find a way.”
During the class, Shelby Smith, 25, reminded her partner that they needed to move faster to get the scenario set up because her patient was dying.
“It’s a good learning experience because it makes it more realistic,” she said.
As the students get more hands-on time and clinical experience, they lose their virtual patients less often, but there’s always a curveball just around the corner.
Andie Ethridge, 20, said that as she works through the chaos of a distressed patient, the flashing lights and whatever surprises the lesson has in store, that moments of clarity occur.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking at first; you have to learn to think in the field,” she said. “Then (as you work) you kind of think, “Oh, now I understand what’s happening.‘”
Ethridge said she most enjoys learning with and from her classmates.
That’s the best part,” she said. “You get to meet a lot of really good people who know it’s important.“