Manikins give bodies to science in MJC nursing program

SONORA -- Johnny is breathing normally, with a regular heartbeat. All of a sudden, his vital signs go off the chart, monitors start beeping and nurses rush to his aid.

The nurses aren't actually medical professionals -- they're nursing students; the monitors aren't kicking into overdrive -- an instructor clicked a button on a laptop connected to the patient; and Johnny isn't human -- he's a manikin.

Nursing students from the foothills now are getting hands-on experience without commuting to labs in Modesto or Stockton. Modesto Junior College offers nursing classes in Sonora, near Columbia College and Sonora Regional Medical Center.

MJC's 48 nursing students in Sonora work on three manikins -- an adult, child and infant. MJC's Modesto campuses have two manikins -- adult and child.

"A key issue to rural communities is access to quality health care," said Roe Darnell, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, which includes MJC and Columbia. "Programs like these help."

Though the models have blank looks on their faces, the manikins' predecessors were little more than dummies -- students could perform CPR on some or tracheotomies on others. Manikins simulate vital signs such as real heart rates, breathing and pulses. Their eyes blink and they have bodily fluids similar to blood. They have skin, and with the help of wigs and detachable genitalia, can be male or female.

The pseudo-humans are hooked to a monitor displaying vital signs. They also are hooked to a laptop computer, allowing an instructor to program simulations -- such as heart attacks, cancer and cystic fibrosis.

The three manikins cost about $105,000 from a $222,000 grant from the California Workforce Investment Division. The remainder is going to educating instructors on the manikins and their technology.

It's rare for rural communities to have access to manikins because of their cost, said Danise Rapetti, a registered nurse and skills lab coordinator.

Nursing students take their general education classes at Columbia College. They enroll in MJC and complete classes online or watch lectures via satellite since Columbia does not have a nursing program. They participate in labs at the Sonora location, allowing students to get their degrees without leaving town. About 80 percent get jobs at foothill hospitals, school officials said.

A step up from dummies but not yet akin to the real thing, manikins bridge the gap between reading about medicine in a textbook and caring for real patients.

They also pump up student confidence -- caring for dummies then moving immediately to an infant can be scary.

But the reality also causes students to relate to their artificial patients. During one simulation, the child was a soccer player who broke his leg because of untreated cancer. The leg had to be amputated, Rapetti said. The students were shocked when they came back from lunch to see the stump. They wouldn't leave the child alone unless someone watched over him, she said.

"It's so much more valuable than having a dummy lying here and doing nothing," Rapetti said. "I wouldn't want to go back."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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