Mandy Mlsna’s patient was dying. She checked his pulse as the heart monitor went from a steady beep to a frantic alarm.
Somewhere in the course of performing CPR, checking vital signs and applying a defibrillator, Mlsna forgot it was all a simulation. The 21-year-old nursing student at Viterbo University was focused on saving her patient — a high-tech dummy.
“When we saw our patient crashing, we just did what we had to do,” Mlsna said.
The scenarios are run in Viterbo’s new nursing center, which opened last year. Here, the next generation of nurses is being trained with technology that closely mimics conditions in a real emergency room.
Each emergency is different. Patients vary in age and background, with unique health conditions that call for different types of treatment.
The mannequin-like simulator coughs, breathes heavily, asks about loved ones and even complains.
It has a pulse. It crashes and recovers. Sometimes, the pulse stops.
“It’s kind of stressful, but it challenges you a lot,” said Cullen Becker, a Viterbo nursing student.
Becker, 21, has used Viterbo’s simulation lab before, but never to replicate life-threatening situations.
These life-or-death exercises are reserved for seniors, part of a required seven-week advanced adult health class that combines real-world experience in the community and simulations in the technical labs at Viterbo’s nursing center.
In the labs, instructors serve as puppeteers, hidden behind the dying mannequin. They evaluate the students as they respond.
Toni Wissestad, an assistant professor of nursing, adopted a sickly tone as she leaned forward into a microphone.
Acting the part of the patient, she said: “Something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong. I don’t feel good.”
On the other side of the glass, nursing students scrambled.
The instructors hear students comfort the patient, watching from multiple camera angles. From an indicator in the chest cavity of the mannequin, they can tell if students push hard enough for CPR chest compressions.
The goal of these particular simulations is to teach students how to act under pressure, in an environment that closely mirrors the real world, said Kathy Warner, an assistant professor of nursing.
“They take care of the patient here, just as they would in the hospital,” Warner said. “It allows them the opportunity to prioritize, critically think, work as a team.”
Despite years of study, Becker struggled at first to put his expertise to action. It all came flooding back when the patient started crashing, its fake heart slipping into a chaotic rhythm.
There was nothing fake about Becker’s response: “That’s where your instincts take over. You don’t really think. It just comes to you.”